Pi­o­neers vy­ing for share of NEC ti­tle

Stamford Advocate - - Sports - By Doug Bon­jour

FAIR­FIELD — Do not lis­ten, he said. Scrap the pre­dic­tions, they mean noth­ing.

When the North­east Con­fer­ence pre­sea­son poll was re­leased in July — with Sa­cred Heart picked to fin­ish sixth out of seven teams by the league’s coaches — quar­ter­back Kevin Duke sug­gested re­serv­ing judg­ment on the Pi­o­neers. The team’s fate, he in­sisted, would take months to de­cide. Turns out, he was right. Once mis­cast as a bot­tom-feeder in the NEC, the Pi­o­neers now find them­selves on the brink of the post­sea­son. A win over Duquesne on Satur­day would lock up at least a share of the NEC ti­tle and an elu­sive FCS play­off berth.

“Even though, we … had a ton of new guys, a new ton of new faces, a ton of fresh­men, it was, ‘We’ve got to in­still in th­ese guys that we’re here to win.’ This isn’t just some col­lege foot- ball team that just shows up,” Duke said Mon­day. “We even said it last Novem­ber af­ter our sea­son ended, ‘Hey, I don’t want to go through a whole ‘nother year and come out and fin­ish like this.’

“Every­body was push­ing each other and every­body was root­ing for each other.”

For­tu­nately for the Pi­o­neers (6-3), this year has been dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent. They’ve over­come ad­ver­sity — in­clud­ing a slew of in­juries and a dis­heart­en­ing mid­sea­son three-game los­ing streak — to edge closer to their goal. They’re off to their best start since 2001, hav­ing won their first four con­fer­ence games.

“There’s been a lot of grow­ing up, a lot of ma­tur­ing from a lot of dif­fer­ent peo­ple,” Duke said. “I re­mem­ber (say­ing) ear­lier in the year that we have a lot of young guys. We need a lot of young guys to step up and make plays. … I would be­lieve that we’ve done ex­actly that.”

They own the con­fer­enc-

e’s best rush­ing at­tack, thanks in large part to fresh­man Julius Chest­nut — a pow­er­ful down­hill run­ner with a nose for the end zone. Chest­nut (6-1, 215) has run for 562 yards and six touch­downs, while his coun­ter­part, Jor­dan Meachum, ranks fourth in the FCS with 1,103 rush­ing yards.

Keep­ing that ground game rolling against Duquesne is, of course, a pri­mary fo­cus. From here on out, the Pi­o­neers are pretty much in must-win ter­ri­tory. A win this week would en­sure a ticket to the post­sea­son, while a loss would drop them into a tie for first with the Dukes (6-3). And the Dukes would own the head-to-head tiebreaker.

“You’ve got to go on the road; you’re go­ing to Pitts­burgh. You’re play­ing a very good Duquesne team that we haven’t beaten the last three years,” said head coach Mark Nofri, whose team last made the play­offs in 2014. “There’s a lot at stake. The kids know that.

“We talk about how ev­ery Satur­day from here on out is Cham­pi­onship Satur­day.”

The Pi­o­neers weren’t pro­jected to be in this po­si­tion — not in July, and most cer­tainly not af­ter a 42-0 loss to Dart­mouth in Oc­to­ber. They were 3-3, and their sea­son was in dan­ger of spi­ral­ing out of con­trol. In­juries were mount­ing. So, too, was the frus­tra­tion in the locker room.

It was gut-check time. “Los­ing those three games, it was a re­al­iza­tion that we aren’t that good af­ter go­ing 3-0,” said Duke, who sat out the Dart­mouth game with an in­jury to his left non-throw­ing shoul­der. “It’s re­ally a re­al­ity check. It put us in our place where we have to fo­cus on do­ing the lit­tle things right. We have to make sure that we’re do­ing them right all the time and not just on Fri­days right be­fore the game. You can’t win the game on Fri­day. You’ve got to try to win the game on Mon­day, Tues­day, Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day in prepa­ra­tion for Satur­day.”

With Duke and wide re­ceiver An­drew O’Neill back the fol­low­ing week, the Pi­o­neers over­came a 10-point half­time deficit to beat ri­val Cen­tral Con­necti­cut State, 28-25. And just like that, their sea­son started to turn.

“We’re all ex­cited,” Meachum said. “A lot of us haven’t been in this po­si­tion to where, it’s right there. We’re just all try­ing to stay fo­cused and stay to­gether and just play hard.”

And this week, they’ll play for a cham­pi­onship.

Krista Ben­son / For Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Sa­cred Heart quar­ter­back Kevin Duke, right, looks to avoid a tackle from Robert Mor­ris’ Adam Wol­let on Satur­day in Fair­field.

Krista Ben­son / For Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Sa­cred Heart run­ning back Jor­dan Meachum picks up yards against Robert Mor­ris on Satur­day in Fair­field.

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