Hanging tough, Norwich football turned its season around to end up in playoffs

Left to right, captains Eleazar Rausseo , Kalin Killinger, Benjamin Hummer and Sam Chaves get a lot of credit for leadership helping the team to stay focused and improve every day. Photo by Katherine Gagne

Left to right, captains Eleazar Rausseo , Kalin Killinger, Benjamin Hummer and Sam Chaves get a lot of credit for leadership helping the team to stay focused and improve every day. Photo by Katherine Gagne

The Norwich University football team had a tough start to its season, losing the first three games by big margins. The Cadets were outscored by their opponents 106 to just 38 points, a disheartening start to the 10-game season.
Head coach Mark Murnyack, looking at his 0-3 team, was honest: “At the time this particular football team wasn’t ready to compete with the higher caliber teams,” he said.
What a difference today. How did a team that stumbled out of the gate end up clinching its third Eastern Collegiate Football Conference (ECFC) title by knocking off Husson University 20-17 at Sabine Field on Saturday, Nov. 7?

The answer is all about leadership, keeping the faith and a youthful team working hard every day to try and get better.
The Cadets have won six straight conference games and are now 6-3 on the year. Castleton’s loss to Becker last weekend sealed the team’s third league title since 2011 and 2009.
Those first three losses hurt and provided motivation. Slow starts and inconsistency hobbled the team, said Murnyack. “We were a pretty good team and to go on the road and lose by the score we did, guys started to get disappointed and frustrated.”
“The team just started slow and couldn’t wrangle anything together,” said safety Austin Roberts, 21, from Brockton, Mass., a communications major. “We kept with the game plan though and continued to work hard.”
The Cadets were picked to finish second behind Husson in the ECAC preseason poll, but some key losses of players from last year’s team hurt, as well as a lack of experience with many freshman and first-year starters. The lack of experience showed with tough opponents such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, St. Lawrence and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
“We lost some important players from last year’s team, and we had a lack of experience from the new players on the team,” said Bill Russell, the assistant head coach.
Conditioning also proved to be a factor. Mid-August is when players start to arrive at school and begin the preseason, a time when it is often hot and uncomfortable weather. Nose tackle Tim Harrington, 22, a communications major from Weymouth, Mass, said, “It was hot during the first few games and players were out of shape in the preseason.”
As it turned out, scheduling tough non-conference games early in the season prepared the Cadets for the rest of the season, because they got to see what high-caliber team can do, as well as how they play. RPI, St. Lawrence, and WPI last week were 17-5 on the season.
The second loss for the cadets was the home opener against St. Lawrence. The cadets lost 42-28. “At the beginning of the season, St. Lawrence was ranked 15th in the country,” said Murnyak. “They were coming off a loss that they shouldn’t have and they were ready for us.”
Last season, Norwich beat St. Lawrence on the road ultimately ending St. Lawrence’s home winning streak, and the team came into the game with a chip on its shoulder.
Despite the early struggles, Murnyack still felt optimistic about the season.
“I felt good about the team this year, I was always telling the staff that I don’t know where we are going to be, but I do know this about this year’s team: they will work, and we built off that,” said Murnyack.
The coaching staff preached that “we will get better” all the time to the players and to fellow coaching staff as well. The team mentality and identity continually was described as resilient, tough, never giving up, and hard working.
“Most teams being 0-3 would call it a season and just fold, but we always had the same attitude, we will come out and compete,” said Ben Hummer, 20, a criminal justice major from Annapolis, Md., who plays inside linebacker and is one of the team captains.
“After the WPI game, we all sat down and said we hate this feeling, the feeling of losing,” said 19-year-old sophomore Peter McGuire, a war and peace studies major who plays offensive tackle. “We had to get ourselves out of the hole we dug.”
The last time Norwich football went 0-3 at the beginning of the season, they won the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) championship. “Why not us,” said McGuire.
After the three non-conference games the team faced Becker College and finally won, 31-14, on homecoming weekend to start off well in conference play.
“We kept with the game plan, and finally got the momentum going for the team,” said Roberts. “We kept focused, playing hard, and having good practices the week before Becker because we had a bye week.”
“We knew it was only going to take one win,” said Russell, the assistant coach. “We needed one to get the ball rolling and to keep it rolling,” agreed Hummer.
The team continued the momentum into their other games and every day gained both experience and confidence. That led to where they are now, awaiting a playoff bid with a 6-3 overall record, 6-0 in-conference.
“The mentality was to never quit or give up, this season was all about attitude,” said Hummer. “The upperclassman and leadership stepped up and made sure that the underclassman knew what needed to get done and every day we would strive to be better.”
The cadets relied a lot on the leadership of the captains: Ben Hummer, Sam Chaves, Kalin Killinger and, Eleazar Rausseo.
“I think that the captains really stepped up and they helped everybody to get focused,” said McGuire.
But Murnyack said it also helped that the players stayed focused on hard work every day on the fundamentals of the game and knowing their assignments.
“I attribute it to the leaders and captains of this team, especially like Sam Chaves, one of our senior captains who has done an outstanding job, he has echoed exactly what the coaching staff has been trying to get across, he’s a great leader, leads by example, how he prepares himself every day, and also how he practices every day,” said Murnyack.
The many hours of film, being in the weight room, and the willingness to get better revealed the work ethic of the team – and also the coaches, who stayed late watching film, scouting teams, and preparing for both practices and games.
“Hats off to the coaches for getting us physically and mentally prepared to play in a game and for us to know our opponents by their scouting reports,” said Hummer.
Along the way, perhaps ironically by losing, the team grew more tight knit also. “When the team was down we taught them no one is going to be as critical of you or this team, as we are of ourselves,” said Murnyack. “The success of this team and focus came from us not allowing outside influence or what people were saying to you to interfere with what you’re trying to accomplish.”
“Last year a lot of the guys didn’t get along, we won games because we had a lot of athletes,” said Harrington. “This year we had a hard time meshing together because of a lot of new guys especially on the field, but we have come together as of late and we are a really good football team and if we could play those three teams again we could compete.”
While Norwich lost this past weekend to arch-rival Castleton in the Maple  Sap Bucket bowl 31-13,  Murnyack said team members plan to prepare the same way they have all season.
“You have standards for yourself, you judge your performance, don’t let someone else judge you,” said Murnyack.

The team has drawn The Albright Lions in the NCAA playoffs and will travel to Reading, Pa., to face them this Saturday, Nov. 21, at 12 p.m. in Shirk Stadium.

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