|Nick Cella holds off a Brockport defense in RPI's win against the Golden Eagles in a second-round playoff game.
RPI athletics photo
By Brian Lester
Nick Cella and his RPI teammates are preparing for a national quarterfinal against Johns Hopkins Saturday afternoon. They are thrilled to be one of the last eight teams still standing.
Yet, the Engineers haven’t forgotten that senior day loss to rival Union three weeks earlier. The 34-10 loss in the battle for the Dutchman Shoes Trophy marked a disappointing end to an otherwise impressive regular season. Cella will tell you it still stings a little.
“We know we didn’t play our best football and we made mistakes we usually don’t make,” the senior running back said.
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The defeat did nothing, though, to slow down the Engineers, who have surged ahead, leaving it in the rearview mirror.
They have since knocked off two opponents in the playoffs, starting with a 38-14 opening-round win over Husson and following it up with a stunning 21-13 win over fourth-ranked Brockport on the road this past weekend.
Sometimes a loss can kill momentum. Losing to Union did just the opposite for RPI, which is in the quarterfinal round for the first time since 2003.
“It definitely left a bad taste in our mouth,” Cella said. “It motivated us that much more. We wanted to get that taste out of our mouths get that check back in the win column. We were able to do that.”
Sixth-year head coach Ralph Isernia was never worried about his team dropping that game to Union.
“When you play a rivalry game there is a lot of emotion, and you couple that with it being senior day and it possibly being our last home game, it can be tough to win,” Isernia said. “(Union) played well that day and it just came down to our mistakes. We turned it over a bunch (five times).”
Good teams find a way to overcome adversity. RPI was able to do just that and because of it, it is still in contention for a national championship.
“Our guys are resilient,” Isernia said. “They knew they had another week to prove themselves.”
RPI made quite the statement against Brockport, which played in the final four a year ago.
An Eagles team featuring a defense that is basically a brick wall against the run, allowing minus-2.3 rushing yards per game going into the showdown, was bruised by Cella, who rushed for a pair of scores and churned out 106 hard-earned yards in a defensive battle.
“We knew the coaches had a great game plan and we knew they would put us in the right places,” Cella said. “At the end of the day, we just had to make plays, and we did that to pull out a big win. It’s unreal to still be playing with 100 of my best friends, my brothers. We’re ready for December football.”
Cella credits the offensive line for its part in the success he had against the Eagles last week.
“It starts with those guys up front. They open all the holes for me,” Cella said. “I get all of the glory but it really comes down to them at the end of the day.”
The Engineers didn’t get an opportunity to play this late into the season last year. They were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Wesley, losing 45-27.
“One of our goals ever since last season when we were in the playoffs was to keep playing through November, and now we’re going to be playing in December and that’s exciting, especially for our senior class,” Isernia said. “That class is the most successful in RPI history. I’m happy for them. They took a chance on us four years ago and have made themselves into really good football players.”
There are a total of 27 seniors on the RPI roster and Isernia will be the first to tell you their leadership was instrumental in helping RPI overcome the loss to Union and piece together a memorable run through the playoffs.
“The culture we have here is playing each play and making each day the best it can be,” Isernia said. “We don’t let a moment become too big, and more than anything, the leadership we have has been big. They know the program and know how to go about their business. They’ve done a great job of bringing the younger guys along.”
Cella said it’s only natural for he and his classmates to step up as leaders.
“Being a leader is important to me because I know how much the seniors helped me when I came here,” Cella said. “We’ve been able to do a great job helping the young guys get up to speed and be a part of the winning culture we have here. We felt that because we had so many seniors that we had a shot at making a playoff run.”
The next challenge is Johns Hopkins, which finished the regular season ranked 14th in the nation.
While the opponent is different, the formula for success remains the same for RPI.
“They are a very dynamic team and put up big numbers on offense. They also have a stingy defense and are very opportunistic,” Isernia said. “There is no magic bullet for us. We have to take care of the ball, turn them over and play lights out on special teams. That has been our formula all year long.”
Cella agrees that not much will change with the game plan. He’s looking forward to the opportunity to compete one more time as a college football player.
“I am so blessed and don’t want it to end,” Cella said. “We’re trying to prolong the season for as long as possible.”
No matter how the game plays out Saturday, RPI is a winner as far as Isernia is concerned.
“When we look at success, it’s not just about winning games, winning league championships and getting to the playoffs,” Isernia said. “For us, it’s about our 100 percent graduation rate and setting these guys up for success in life. And oh by the way if we happen to win a conference championship and go deep into the playoffs, that just enhances the experience.”
That doesn’t mean RPI is satisfied with just getting to this point.
“It’s not that we are happy just to be here,” Isernia said. “Our guys are on a mission and they want to prove they belong.”