The Sacred Heart University Pioneers football team returned to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Sunday, April 11 to decide the Northeastern Conference (NEC) champion. After a 30-27 loss to Duquesne in week one, the Pioneers came away with a 34-27 overtime victory to secure the NEC trophy.
“It feels amazing to be champions,” said Pioneers junior quarterback Marquez McCray. “A lot of hard work behind the scenes went into this, and it feels good to be recognized.”
Since the loss to Duquesne in week one, the Pioneers, along with McCray, rebounded and finished the regular season on a two-game winning streak.
“I’ve always had a lot of confidence in Marquez,” said Pioneers offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Matt Gardner. “I think he has a chance to be one of the best quarterbacks to ever play here.”
McCray had only started three college football games prior to this season.
“In the offseason I was just kind of trying to figure out my role on the team. Just coming in everyday and working, my teammates’ confidence in me really boosted me,” said McCray.
According to Sacred Heart Athletics, McCray finished the championship game 15 of 23, for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
The other impact performer for the Pioneers was junior running back Julius Chestnut. Chestnut finished the game with 173 rushing yards and a touchdown.
“Anytime you give Julius Chestnut the ball, he can take it the distance,” said Gardner.
After this performance and another record-setting season, Chestnut was named NEC Offensive Player of the Year.
“I’m the second person in Sacred Heart history to win this award, so it means something special to me to bring something back to the school,” said Chestnut.
Sacred Heart held a two touchdown lead in the second half, but Duquesne was able to level the score and send the NEC championship into overtime.
Sacred Heart got the ball first in overtime. The Pioneers put themselves in a long 4th & 14 scenario, in which if they weren’t able to find the end zone, Duquesne would be able to kick a field goal for the win.
“4th and 14 there’s not a lot of plays to call in that situation, and Coach Gardner called the perfect play,” said Pioneers senior offensive tackle J.D. DiRenzo.
McCray dropped back and fired a strike down the seam to junior receiver Naseim Brantley, who was able to fall into the endzone for what turned out to be the game-winning score.
“It was a play we have repped in practice, and when it came up, we were like, alright let’s call it, and Nas [Naseim] popped open and Marquez made a great throw,” said Gardner.
McCray was looking for his biggest players when the game was on the line.
“It was 4th down, we needed a big play, and Nas has been making plays all year. I knew it was going to him,” said McCray. “When I saw him come open, I just let it go and I knew he was gonna catch it.”
According to Sacred Heart Athletics, Brantley finished the game with four receptions, for 75 yards, and one touchdown.
“We found one of our best players on a mismatch, Quez [Marquez] made an unbelievable throw and Nas made an unbelievable catch,” said DiRenzo. “It was a perfect all-around play call, throw, catch, to win a championship, you can’t draw it up any better than that.”
Team success triumphs individual success for the Pioneers.
“We’re playing a lot smarter, and a lot more together. It was win or go home, and everyone sacrificed and we came together,” said Chestnut.
The Pioneers will enter the pool for the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and are scheduled to play the University of Delaware on Sunday, April 24 at 7 p.m.