November 14, 2012

W&J finds triumph amid tragedy

More news about: Washington and Jefferson
When a teammate was killed last month, "We made it our goal to win a conference championship for him," wide receiver Alex Baroffio said.
Washington & Jefferson athletics photo

It had been only 37 days since Washington and Jefferson star running back and team captain Tim McNerney had been killed while walking home from bar on an early October morning.

The tragic death had shattered the hearts of family, friends, teammates and a small college town where bad things aren't supposed to happen.

Yet, on Saturday afternoon, on the road in a big rivalry game against Waynesburg that had a share of the PAC title and a playoff berth riding on it, the Presidents had a reason to smile.

They toppled previously unbeaten and 18th-ranked Waynesburg 31-14 at Wiley Stadium, securing a share of their 23rd Presidents' Athletic Conference championship and trip to the postseason for the first time since 2009.

The coaching staff and the players wore smiles as they celebrated the title, the culmination of a regular-season journey like no other before it, and posed for a picture on the field that included a framed photo of McNerney.

"When Tim died, we made it our goal to win a conference championship for him," wide receiver Alex Baroffio said. "I've won titles in high school, but this was the most awesome feeling I've ever had after winning a championship. We are so happy that we are able to honor Tim in this way because he was such a great player, teammate and friend to all of us."

Head coach Mike Sirianni understands the rich history of football success at W&J, but based on what his team has been through this season, the title the Presidents won on Saturday trumps everything else.

After the game, the team presented the trophy to the family of McNerney.

"It was a big game for a lot of reasons, and the most important one being winning it for Tim," Sirianni said. "It was nice to be able to hand the trophy to his family. With what these kids have been through this year, this might have been the biggest win in school history."

So many different players stepped up in the win. Baroffio turned in a breakout performance, making 11 catches for 139 yards. The junior wide receiver caught three touchdown passes as well.

"I had a little extra pep in my step for this game," Baroffio said. "I was pumped up to the play the game, and I played hard the whole time. Everyone seemed to be clicking, and we played very well as a team."

Matt Bliss was 21-of-26 for 251 yards and four touchdowns. Dion Wiegand rushed for 64 yards. John Hunter came through with 15 tackles, and Ian Hennessy added 11 tackles as Waynesburg was limited to 298 yards. Washington and Jefferson racked up 360 yards.

"It was a team effort," Sirianni said. "We were able to move the ball on offense, and we played great defense. We felt like going in if we played, we were going to have a chance to win. We did a great job of responding to the challenge."

Life was different earlier this season.

The Presidents had won three consecutive games, and it seemed as if they were about to pick up momentum in their quest to win a PAC title.

McNerney was killed two days before the Presidents were scheduled to make a trip to Kentucky to play Thomas More, and suddenly, football didn't seem so important anymore. The death of a teammate was the most important thing on the minds of the Presidents.

W&J wanted to still play football that week to honor its fallen teammate, but from a mental standpoint, the Presidents weren't ready to be on the field and lost 54-18 to Thomas More on Oct. 6.

"Looking back on that game, we just weren't in it mentally," Baroffio said. "It was very hard to play that game. We were playing with a lot of sadness. But after that game, things got a little easier, and we wanted to play our best to honor Tim."

The Presidents did just that, winning their final four games of the regular season. Sirianni wasn't sure how his team would respond after the tragedy, but he always hoped that his team could overcome it.

"There is no manual for a coach on how to deal with something like this," Sirianni said. "I talked to the team about playing as hard as we could and to try and win every game. That was going to be our best way to honor Tim during the season. I'm proud of the way they came together as a team."

The run started with a 24-21 win over Westminster. A 40-14 victory over St. Vincent followed before the Presidents knocked off Geneva 27-17 to set the stage for the showdown against Waynesburg..

"This is the closest team I've ever been on," Baroffio said. "Everyone has had each other's back and we have been there to pick each other up. "Tim was always such a competitor and we wanted to compete as hard as he did."

Next up for Washington and Jefferson is a date with Johns Hopkins in the opening round of the playoffs on Saturday. The game will be on the road, and the Presidents are thrilled about the opportunity in front of them.

"I told the guys that this a great opportunity for us to advance in the national playoffs and help get this program back in the national spotlight," Sirianni said. "Johns Hopkins has an outstanding football team and we will have to play our best to win it. We are looking forward to the opportunity, and hopefully we can take advantage of it."

Regardless of how the story ends for W&J, it's been a special season for the Presidents, who have overcome a tragedy to have success.

"It's exciting that we have been able to put it all together and that we get a chance to play this game. We will prepare for it the same way we do for every game," Baroffio said. "Hopefully we can play another great game and have a chance to win it."

Inside the OAC

Mount Union is headed back to the playoffs after wrapping up a perfect regular season with a 59-17 road win over John Carroll on Saturday. The win gives the top-ranked Purple Raiders their 21st consecutive OAC championship. They finished 9-0 in conference play and 10-0 overall.

They also secured their 24th trip to the playoffs in program history and will enter the postseason looking to end a three-year national championship drought.

Kevin Burke paved the way with a remarkable performance. He threw for 379 yards and rushed for 72 yards. Burke connected on five touchdown passes and rushed for two scores as the Purple Raiders rolled up a season-best 623 yards of offense.

Jasper Collins came up big offensively as well. He caught 11 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns while Chris Denton made seven grabs for 137 yards and three scores.

John Carroll, which actually led 10-7 at the end of one quarter, managed just 254 yards of offense against Mount Union, including only 24 on the ground. Hank Spencer racked up seven tackles and recovered a fumble. Mark Myers threw for 235 yards and one score to pace the Blue Streaks.

John Carroll ends the year at 6-4 overall and 5-4 in the league.

Mount Union will begin its postseason quest on Saturday when it hosts Christopher Newport, which comes in at 6-4 overall and as champions of the USA South Conference.

The playoff hopes for Heidelberg hinged on blocking a 35-yard game-winning field goal attempt by Chris Mohler on the final play of the game.

Andrew Dizak managed to get his hands on the kick and helped the Student Princes secure a thrilling 35-34 victory and a trip to the playoffs.

When head coach Mike Hallett took over the program six years ago, Heidelberg had lost 36 consecutive games. Much has changed in that time as the the Student Princes are 9-1 overall and 8-1 in the league. They were paced by Michael Mees, who threw for 193 yards and a touchdown. Mees also ran for a touchdown in the win. He was picked off twice.

Bryan Lacey rushed for 201 yards and Mario Escalante caught six passes for 85 yards and one score.

Craig Sykes had a monster game on the defensive end of the field, racking up 19 tackles and one sack. Tim Littles came through with 11 tackles, and Shane Byrne tallied 10 tackles.

Heidelberg finished with 451 yards and allowed 501 yards to the Yellow Jackets, who finish 7-3 overall and 6-3 in the OAC. Sebastian Zuluaga rushed for 133 yards and a touchdown.

Inside the MIAA

Adrian will represent the MIAA in the playoffs. The Bulldogs will play Franklin on Saturday as they will host a playoff game for the first time in program history. The Grizzlies are 8-2 on the year.

Adrian closed the regular season against No. 17 Huntingdon and trailed 16-0 before scoring 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to rally for a wild win. The victory secured the ninth win of the season for the Bulldogs, who tied the 1980 team that won nine games as well.

"We didn't need to win the game to get into the playoffs, but I was happy to see us fight back and win it," Adrian head coach Jim Deere said. "The guys played hard, and I thought it was our biggest win of the season."

Adrian lost its opener to Carthage but hasn't lost since en route to winning the conference title.

"I told the school president when I was hired three years ago that I was either going to win a championship within three years or I would turn in my resignation papers," Deere said. "I'm glad I still have my job."

Aaron Tenney threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Antoine Mason with 6:38 to go in the game, hitting Mason on an eight-yard scoring strike. Tenney threw a two-point conversion pass as well to give the Bulldogs the 17-16 advantage.

Tenney threw for 86 yards on a day when the Bulldogs tallied just 157 yards. Justin Hemm caught six passes for 84 yards. Deontae Bridgeman racked up nine tackles to pace the defense.

Inside the NCAC

Wittenberg and Ohio Wesleyan tied for the regular-season NCAC championship, but the Tigers earned the automatic bid to the playoffs by winning the tiebreaker.

Wittenberg assured itself of its 15th playoff bid in program history by knocking off Oberlin 47-20 on the road to finish 9-1 overall and 6-1 in the conference.

The Tigers churned out 580 yards and jumped in front 35-0 to leave no doubt about the outcome.

Reed Florence threw for 286 yards and three touchdowns and Jimmy Dehnke rushed for 127 yards. Desi Kirkman caught six passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. Kirkman also rushed for a touchdown.

Victor Banjo came through with seven tackles and forced on fumble while Evan Killilea tallied seven tackles as well. Oberlin finished with 381 yards, with Lucas Poggiali throwing for 232 yards and two scores. Oberlin ends its season at 4-6 overall and 3-4 in the NCAC.

Monon Bell

Wabash continued its dominance of the Monon Bell rivalry against DePauw, winning the annual showdown for the fourth consecutive year.

The Little Giants rolled to a 23-0 victory and the win marked the first time in 33 years that a Wabash senior class has gone 4-0 in the game. Wabash has outscored DePauw 147-26 in those four games.

Wabash churned out 275 yards on the ground, including 169 by Tyler Holmes, who became the first running back since 2003 to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season.

Chase Belton threw for 157 yards and one touchdown on a day when the Little Giants rolled up 432 yards of offense. Nate Scola led the Wabash defense with six tackles. Wabash ends the year at 8-2 overall and 5-2 in the NCAC.

Drew Seaman threw for 103 yards to pace the Tigers, who finish 2-8 overall and 1-6 in the conference. The Tigers managed only 142 yards of offense. Robby Schuler led the DePauw defense with 18 tackles.

Academic Bowl

Case Western Reserve prevailed in the Academic Bowl against Carnegie Mellon on Saturday, rolling to a 36-24 victory in Cleveland.

Vinny Bell came through with a solid performance as he caught seven passes for 180 yards and a touchdown. He is a former two-time All-American on the Case soccer team.

The Spartans rolled up 484 yards, including 107 by Manny Sicre. Billy Beecher rushed for 68 yards and three scores. Ryan Ferguson paced the Spartans' defense with 10 tackles.

Rob Kalkstein paced the Tartans as he threw for 173 yards and a touchdown. The Tartans finished the day with only 220 yards. Eric Rolfes and Nick Carabin came through with 12 and 10 tackles, respectively, to lead the Tartans.

Case Western Reserve finishes the year at 6-4 overall and 2-1 in the UAA. Carnegie Mellon also went 6-4 overall and finished 2-1 in the UAA.

Notes

Ben Sizemore threw for 107 yards and one touchdown and rushed for 53 yards and a score to help Otterbein wrap up its 2012 campaign with a 24-13 win over Ohio Northern. The Cardinals finish third in the conference at 8-2 overall and 7-2 in the OAC...One of the best seasons in Ohio Wesleyan history ended with a share of the NCAC title but no playoff bid. The Battling Bishops wrapped up the year with a 36-12 win over Wooster. Mason Espinosa turned in a stellar performance, throwing for 352 yards and four scores. Morgan McBride and James Huddleston tallied nine and seven tackles, respectively. The Battling Bishops finished 9-1 overall and 6-1 in the conference...The hopes for an undefeated season ended on Saturday for Waynesburg, which lost 31-14 to Washington and Jefferson in the season finale. Bertrand Ngampa rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown for the Yellow Jackets, who finish the year at 9-1 overall and 7-1 in the PAC.

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Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Findlay, Ohio. He has 14 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending the last 10 at The Courier in Findlay. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3hoops.com. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois and lives in Ottawa with his wife and daughter.

2011 columnist: Dean Jackson
2007-10 columnist: Matt Florjancic

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