On Sat. Oct. 26, the Norwich University football team played its first “prime-time” game, under the new lights beaming down on the freshly renovated Sabine Field. In all sports, at any level, games are usually considered “prime-time” when they are played under the lights, and it was no different for the NU football players.
“Playing under the lights is always a huge deal in sports,” said Jessie Fulger a junior business management major and football center from Halfmoon, N.Y.
“The ‘Friday Night Lights’ is what makes high school football so special,” Fulger said. “When you get to the college and professional ranks you have to earn the right to play at night.”
The night match saw the Cadets prevail over the Anna Maria College “Am-Cats” by a score of 38-6. With the game well in hand going into the fourth quarter, the Cadets seized the opportunity to show off their depth and get the young talent some time on the turf.
“This was a tremendous opportunity for us as a team,” said senior linebacker Jim LaBell, a communications major and native of Stanhope, N.J.
For Labell, the football team represents his alma mater, NU, and what it stands for. “This school is about traditions, we take great pride in that as a football team,” he said. “We put the shield on our bodies and we remember the guys who have played before us for over 100 years. In order to make a tradition you have to start it.”
LaBell noted that the team missed an opportunity to win the first home game on the renovated Sabine Field, losing to St. Lawrence, but the team worked extremely hard to make sure they would not lose the first game under the lights.
To prepare for this game, the cadets held many night practices in order to train in the conditions they would likely be facing.
“It is great to practice on Sabine and Coach Mern tries to prepare us for every situation so he’s put us under the lights a lot because most of us haven’t done that since high school,” LaBell said.
Like the other sports teams that share the home field, the NU football team has scheduled practice times at different hours than they traditionally have. However playing under lights is not the only benefit of of having the new field. “It is less travel from the locker room to Sabine, instead of going downstairs to the practice field, and you do not rip up the grass because of the artificial turf.”
The Cadets have even held intersquad scrimmages to prepare for their “prime-time” games, geared mostly to benefit the freshmen in the program.
“I like practicing under the lights because they make everything more exciting,” said freshman quarterback Luke Tancreti, a 19-year-old criminal justice major from Hartland, Vt.
Tancreti is no stranger to night games. Over the mid-semester break, he went home to his high school where he watched his former teammates play under the lights. He said that the scrimmage helped get him back into the night football mindset.
“The inter-squad was great, it gave us a taste of what a night game would be like and we need to take advantage of the new field and lights as much as we can,” Tancreti said.
It was a night of firsts for some. The first game under the lights for the team was also the first time ever playing under the lights for both NU football veterans Cejka and Fulger. “It was so special that guys like him and myself got to get in under the lights. I’ll never forget it,” Fulger said.
LaBell said that the Cadets earned the privilege to have a night game, pointing out the years of success Norwich had to have before a renovation, and also highlighting their four straight winning seasons, and two Eastern Collegiate Football Conference (ECFC) Championships.
As the senior linebacker who was the leading tackler on the 2011 championship team, Labell says that the team had worked hard in the years prior and felt it deserved the literal spotlight.
“We joked amongst the guys saying: ‘In 20 years the Rook Book will say 2013 first night game on Sabine Field, Cadets 38 – Am-Cats 6,’” LaBell said, refering to the Cadet Handbook that freshmen in the Corps of Cadets are required to use and memorize. The handbook contains a list of important dates in NU history.
The game itself made the night even more memorable for those like Cejka, who had much success against the Am-Cats. He made a crucial play to stop the opposing team from scoring late in the game.
Cejka, who was an all-star player in Maine, has performed as a linebacker alongside LaBell, team captain Louis Delgado, Steve “Furious” Gilmore, and Michael Finney. He broke away from the lineup and stood out in the game against the Am-Cats.
“Anna Maria had busted off a long run, entering Cadet territory,” Labell said of the big game. “But, in the red zone we forced a fumble and Cejka was there to recover it. I was so happy for him.”
According to his teammates, like Fulger, Cejka has been one of the hardest-working guys in the program for the past four years and had not taken an official snap prior to the night game.
Saturday’s victory may have been prime-time for another reason as well. With one conference loss already, the team’s point differential could play a crucial rule in tiebreakers for a potential playoff berth and the large point differential may end up being what it takes to secure the Cadets their postseason slot.
The Cadets will enter this coming Saturday’s game at 4-3, looking to take an important win from Husson this Saturday. In light of the team’s success in the first game under the Sabine lights, this upcoming game is senior night and it is an impotant one to win for Norwich, according to Labell.
If the Cadets take the game against Husson, they will be eligible to compete in the post-season play and will move on to a bowl game. A loss may result in the team being dropped from the running.