Pioneers vying for share of NEC title
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.
Sacred Heart quarterback Kevin Duke, right, looks to avoid a tackle from Robert Morris’ Adam Wollet on Saturday in Fairfield.
Sacred Heart running back Jordan Meachum picks up yards against Robert Morris on Saturday in Fairfield.