By Shawn Sailer
The Sacred Heart University Pioneers football team got their 2016 season off to a good start. They came from behind to defeat Stetson 18-14 on the road on Sept. 3 in the season opener.
The Pioneers are led offensively by fifth-year quarterback RJ Noel, who was 16-34 for 172 yards and two touchdowns in the win. In addition to Noel, senior running back, Ose Imeokparia, had a big game on the ground. He had 13 rushes for 112 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown was the eventual game-winner. The Pioneers, who trailed at halftime 14-6, outscored the Hatters 8-0 in the second half, stepped up in a big way.
“Coach gave us a speech at halftime and the defense turned up [in the second half],” said Imeokparia.
Defensively, senior Kevin Barry had a career-high 13 tackles and an important sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery late in the game. The Pioneer defense allowed only 295 total yards, while their offense put up 399 total yards.
Barry felt as though the team was much more comfortable in the second half.
“There were a lot of pre-game jitters before. There were a lot of guys playing in their first game,” said Barry. “Once we settled in, in the second half, I think we were good to go from there.”
For their efforts against Stetson, Imeokparia and Barry were named defensive and offensive Northeast Conference (NEC), respectively.
Imeokparia credited those around him for allowing him to have the big game and win the award.
“It’s all because of the offensive line and the receivers. If it wasn’t for them, it wouldn’t be possible for me to do what I do back there.”
Despite the win, there was work to do during the week between games.
“We tried to get into the playbook and tightened up on things we messed up,” said Imeokparia.
Sacred Heart went 6-5 a year ago, 3-3 in the NEC. Despite the winning record, the Pioneers failed to make the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs. The two prior seasons, Sacred Heart won the NEC Championship. They have their goals set on getting back to the postseason this year.
“The biggest thing for us is remaining healthy,” said Barry.
In their second game of the season on Sept. 10, the Pioneers hosted Valparaso on Campus Field for the home opener. The team honored first responders a day before the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 by wearing special red, white and blue helmets.
Sacred Heart came away with a 41-14 victory to improve to 2-0 on the early season. Noel threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns as well as ran for a touchdown. Sophomore running back Jordan Meachum carried the ball 19 times for 99 yards and one touchdown. Imeokparia added a touchdown run as well.
Next up, on Saturday, Sept. 17, the Pioneers will host the Marist Red Foxes at 5 p.m. The season finale and senior day will take place on Nov. 19 against the Bryant Bulldogs. The Pioneers will play seven games in between those. Their entire schedule can be found on the Sacred Heart Athletic website, sacredheartpioneers.com.
The Pioneers are looking forward to an exciting season ahead both on and off the field.
“I’m looking forward to being with my brothers,” said Imeokparia. “This is family. I am looking forward to going to practice with them [teammates]and having games on the weekends is what I am looking forward to.”