November 1, 2011

Titles, hopes and lots of kicks

Mike Graham kick-started the Western New England offense both before and after the snow started covering the ground at Endicott.
WNE file photo by Cindi Williamson
Western New England and Framingham State tucked their respective New England Football College Conference titles away for a date in the NEFC Championship Game on Nov. 12 at WNE. Western New England did it with a stunning 40-37 victory over previously unbeaten Endicott and Framingham got past Coast Guard 14-7.
 
The Golden Bears used electrifying kickoff returns to beat Endicott as Mike Graham took a couple back for touchdowns, sailing 85 and 83 yards.
 
Many of the games in the Northeast were played in blizzard conditions, but the quarterbacks were able to throw the ball. Endicott's Phil Konopka had 407 passing yards with three touchdowns and WNE's Bruce Brown threw for two touchdowns.
 
But nothing is clinched in the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference. Norwich and SUNY-Maritime will try to settle that issue in New York City this week. Both are unbeaten in the conference.
 
There is another clash of unbeatens in the New Engalnd Small College Athletic Conference where Amherst and Trinity will put their 6-0 records on the line.
 
Endicott still has high hopes for an NCAA berth if the Gulls can beat MIT and finish 9-1.
 
And this time of year with the potential for so many close games with so much at stake, it is a luxury to have a reliable field goal kicker.
 
Certainly, SUNY-Maritime coach Clayton Kendrick-Holmes and Norwich coach Mark Murnyack have to feel good about theirs. Madison Leary and Long Ding might have an impact this week on who comes away with the ECFC crown and the automatic berth in the NCAA playoffs that is attached to it for the first time.
 
Leary made two of three field goals for the Privateers in their 34-13 win over Husson and Norwich's Ding nailed his attempt this week in the 45-24 win over Anna Maria. Ding is nine of 12 this season and had one that was the difference in a 10-7 victory over Gallaudet, keeping the Cadets' title hopes on track.
 
Ding is from China, but went to New Hampton Prep and Dean Junior College. Former Norwich head coach Shawn McIntyre cultivated a realtionship with him in both places.
 
Murnyack has confidence in him when he sends him out for the field goal attempt. Not only has he nailed nine of 12, but one of the misses bounced off the upright. "He is a very good student with a 3.5 GPA and a very good athlete. His teammates just love him," Murnyack said.
 
Amherst coach E.J. Mills has the same weapon for his showdown of unbeaten teams this week. Matt Rawson has made nine of his 11 attempts with a long of 45 yards.
 
And as Western New England coach Keith Emery preps for the NEFC title game, he has the luxury of Nick Fox-Edele who has made seven of eight. Jimmy Garvey booted two field goals for Bowdoin to account for the difference in a 12-6 win over Wesleyan.
 
But nobody has a kicker with the range of Dylan Rushe at Endicott. He made a 55-yarder this season against Curry to set an NEFC record for the longest field goal.
 
"It was one of those games where everything went right," Rushe said. "Our quarterback set records that night. It was just a great night four our program."
 
While Ding grew up in Qing Dao, China, Rushe's odyssey is equally interesting.
 
He grew up in Dublin and brought a heavy Irish accent to campus along with his heavy foot. His mother lives in Ireland and father in California. He moved to California at age 14 and did not begin kicking until his senior year of high school.
 
It is a story reminiscent of that of Steve Hauschka who did not begin kicking until he got to Middlebury College before going to the NFL.
 
Like Hauschka, Rushe was a soccer player in high school.
 
"I had some injuries and that was the end of soccer," Rushe said.
 
He began punting that senior year of high school and did not begin trying field goals until halfway through the season for a team that went 0-10.
 
"I played rugby growing up so it wasn't alien," Rushe said.
 
A recruiting service that specializes in kickers sent out film on Rushe and Endicott coach J.B. Wells was impressed with what he saw.
 
"We were very impressed and we told him. That created a dialogue," Wells said. Wells joked with Rushe about Endicott being halfway between Dublin and California.
 
"He had some feelers from Division I schools but nobody serious enough to give a scholarship to a kid with one year of high school kicking experience," Wells said.
 
He made a visit to the campus where he was hosted by Kevin Eagan, the guy many regard as the best player in the NEFC on the defensive side of the ball.  Against WNE, he had 15 tackles, including five for a loss, with two fumble recoveries.
 
Rushe said staying with Eagan had an influence on his decision to come to Endicott.
 
"He's a great kid, really down to earth," Rushe said.
 
Like Ding, Rushe fits in. He's a football player.
 
"Some kickers can be flighty. He's the exact opposite," Wells said. "He's a tough kid."
 
And a luxury Wells really appreciates.
 
"We have a weapon that a lot of people don't have," Wells said. "When you don't have a kicker, you think about it. When you have one, you don't have to think about it.
 
"I have the confidence in him from anywhere on the field. I have seen him go 60 yards in practice. He's got a tremendous leg and he's accurate He doesn't miss very often and when he does, I just let him kick again."
 
He has made 13 of his 20 tries this season, but it is that 55-yarder that stands out for now.
 
Rushe relishes the chance for a kick with an NCAA playoff win on the line.
 
"I feel (those moments) are easier," Rushe said. "I feel it is easier with the pressure. When it's 50-0 my mind goes away. That's when I miss most of my kicks. I prefer the other environment.
 
"I am always trying to get better. I still have a lot to learn." 
 
He missed one against Framingham and he had two blocked in 2010 in a 6-3 loss to RPI.
 
"I can't wait to have that opportunity again," Rushe said.
 
After a tough loss to Framingham State, the Gulls can only hope that opportunity comes this season.
 
October blizzard
 
The heavy snow in some places around the Northeast put a premium on things such as field poistion and the running game.
 
Westfield coach Steve Marino has seen plenty during his long career and said the conditions his Owls played in against Mass. Maritime were the worst he has seen. The Owls fashioned an 11-0 victory and Dan Dowling helped with his team's field position by pinning the Bucs inside the 20 twice with his punts. Michael Mercadante ran for the game's lone touchdown.
 
Framingham's run game was in good hands. Melikke Van Alstyne rushed for 189 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries, helping to give the Rams their first Bogan Division title. Van Alstyne's 1,339 yards on the ground are a Framingham season record.
 
Justin Fuller did it overland for Bridgewater State. He rushed for 143 yards and three touchdowns. But the defense also gets kudos. The 27-0 win over Maine Maritime was the third shutout of the campaign, tying a program record.
 
Justin Wallace rushed for 190 yards and three touchdowns for MIT in a 23-0 blanking of winless Nichols.
 
There was some passing in the NEFC. Freshman Bradley Skeffington threw for two touchdowns in a 28-7 win over Plymouth State and Tony Tokarz passed for 201 yards and three TDs and also ran for a score in lifting Worcester State to a 35-0 win over Fitchburg State. The Lancers are working on a memorable fall at 7-2.
 
UMass-Dartmouth got over .500 (5-4) by whipping Curry 33-7.
 
Cadets, Privateers Set it up
 
Brandon Rudd got the day off to a great start for Norwich by returning the opening kickoff 82 yards to a touchdown and quarterback Kris Sabourin ran for a touchdown for the fifth straight game. Sabourin and Andrew Fulford rushed for two scores each.
 
Norwich is 16-2 since entering the ECFC and 10-0 at Sabine Field.
 
SUNY-Maritime kept pace and set up the big game this week as Jamie Spanopoulos amassed 162 yards on the ground with two touchdowns.
 
It was record-setting time at Castleton's Spartan Stadium and it was the visitors earning the records. Gallaudet won 59-40 and it was the most points in a game by a Bison team while playing at the Division III level. Their 674 yards of total offense was also a program record. Quentin Williams had 234 yards and two scores on just five possessions for Gallaudet which goes to 5-3 and 4-1 in the league with the lone ECFC loss to Norwich.
 
Becker and Mount Ida played in the heavy snow but Scott Drosendahl was able to throw two touchdown passes to lift Ida to a 22-6 win.
 
Bunker Battle at Hand
 
Eric Bunker ran for two touchdowns helping Amhesrt to a 30-0 win over Tufts and his brother Evan's Trinity team cruised past Middlebury 42-7. Now, the brothers square off in a game that might well settle the NESCAC title.
 
Middlebury was playing without prolific passer McCallum Foote, but the Bantams had their own air show as A.J. Jones had five ctaches for 135 yards and two touchdowns.
 
Mules get a Start Toward CBB
 
Colby got a leg up on the CBB (Colby-Bates-Bowdoin) Trophy by whipping Bates 37-13. Connor Walsh led the White Mules on offense. He had a 64-yard touchdown catch, ran for another score and threw for a third. Nick Kmetz threw three TD passes.
 
Pat Noone returned a punt 85 yards to a score to help Bowdoin to a 12-6 win over Wesleyan.
 
Adam Marske tossed two TD passes to JC. Stickney in the first quarter and it stood up for Williams as the Ephs edged Hamilton 14-7.  
 
The Big Games
 
Trinity travels to Amherst and the game has it all. The 6-0 records, the Bunker brothers and most likely the NESCAC title as part of the package.
 
Mass. Maritime visits Bridgewater State for the 33rd annual Cranberry Bowl. The winner will be putting a finishing touch on a nice season as Bridgewater goes in at 6-2 and Mass. Maritime at 5-3.
 
The skyline of the big city will be the backdrop for the most important ECFC game of the year. Norwich and SUNY-Maritime both love to run the ball and it has the earmarks of a classic.
 
Bowdoin visits Bates for a game where the teams will try to stay alive for a piece of the CBB Trophy with Colby.
 
Anna Maria has nothing to play for at home this week. Check that: Anna Maria has everything to play for in this week's game against Becker. A win would touch off a wild celebration for the AmCats who are winless since starting football in 2009.
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Tom Haley

A seven time Vermont sportswriter of the year, Tom Haley has been with the Rutland Herald since 1987. He was inducted into the Castleton State College Hall of Fame in 2004 and received the Contributor to Football Award from the National Football Foundation's Vermont Chapter.

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