BY: RYAN TOUHEY
The Sacred Heart University football team won a share of the Northeast Conference (NEC) Championship on Nov. 17, at Campus Field by defeating Saint Francis University (SFU), 13-7, during their senior day match.
It is the program’s fourth NEC title in its history and the third in the past six years. The most recent title came in 2014, when Sacred Heart and Wagner were crowned co-champions. This year, Sacred Heart shares the honor with Duquesne University, who defeated Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) that same day, 38-31.
“It’s a great feeling to come out on top,” said head coach Mark Nofri. “I couldn’t be prouder of the players this year and what they were able to accomplish.”
Sacred Heart was picked sixth in the NEC Preseason Coaches Poll. They won their first three games, defeating Lafayette, Bucknell and Wagner. They then dropped their next three games to Ivy League schools Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth.
Sacred Heart then went on another three-game winning streak defeating NEC rivals CCSU, Bryant and Robert Morris.
“The players responded each week and getting some guys back who were injured helped out a lot as well,” said Nofri.
The team had a chance to clinch the NEC title on Nov. 10, at Duquesne, but lost 28-24.
Sacred Heart, Duquesne and CCSU entered Nov. 17, in a three-way tie for first in the NEC, as each team was 4-1 in conference play.
“Our planning for the game against SFU didn’t change much,” said fifth-year wide receiver Andrew O’Neill. “We weren’t going to let Saint Francis University affect the way we call our plays. We were going to try and dictate the play calling to them.”
After honoring the graduating seniors, Sacred Heart began their game against SFU by going ahead 3-0, after first-year placekicker Noah Gettman hit a 33-yard field goal in the first quarter.
SFU would score a touchdown and an extra point in the second quarter, to lead 7-3. Sacred Heart would cut the deficit down to one point before the half as Gettman hit another field goal, this time from 27 yards out.
“During halftime, we reminded the players that we had been in this situation before,” said Nofri. “We told them that we need to go back to basics, not to worry, clean up the mistakes and move forward, and they did.”
A strip sack by graduate student and defensive lineman Aaron Donalson on an SFU 3rd and 14, was the turning point in the game for Sacred Heart. The ball was recovered by junior wide receiver, RJ Trimble-Edwards, and the ball was turned back over to Sacred Heart.
“The quarterback scrambled out and we had a good pass rush in,” said Trimble-Edwards. “Donalson made a great tackle and I was right there so I just hopped on the ball.”
Senior running back Jordan Meachum rushed for three yards to score a touchdown and Gettman followed that up by making the extra point. Sacred Heart led 13-7.
“The players fed off the energy from there on,” said Nofri. “There was no panicking, there was no finger pointing, it was great.”
Coming into the game, SFU had the top-ranked defense in the NEC, but Sacred Heart’s defense matched up, especially in the fourth quarter.
SFU did have one last chance to get back into the game with 3:18 remaining. They moved from their 40-yard line to Sacred Heart’s 41-yard line. However, the Sacred Heart defense forced four consecutive incompletions, thereby forcing SFU to punt.
Sacred Heart held on and won, 13-7. The players rushed out onto the field and hoisted Nofri into the air on top of their shoulders in celebration.
“It was pretty emotional,” said Nofri. “It made me feel very special and it was a great moment, probably one of the best I’ve ever had in my six years as the head coach.”