On February 1st, Northeast Conference Commissioner Noreen Morris announced revised regular season competition and NEC Championship formats for fall-to-spring, winter and spring sports, which included football.
These plans were developed and adopted in conjunction with conference and institutional athletic administrators, the NEC Sport Management Committee and the NEC COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee, and approved by the NEC Council of Presidents. With the health and safety of campus and conference communities remaining the NEC’s top priority, the regular season and championship sport formats are subject to reevaluation by the Presidents as the conference monitors health crisis data, along with updated COVID-19 guidance from federal, state, local and campus levels.
“It’s been a long road to get to this point, so this announcement comes with great anticipation and excitement around the league,” said Morris. “These are unprecedented times, so I’m thankful for our Council of Presidents and athletic administrators from around the conference for their unwavering resolve in identifying solutions that prioritized health and safety, and forged a clear path toward a return to play. I’m also thrilled for our resilient student-athletes and coaches, who despite having to make numerous sacrifices along the way, have always remained positive and never wavered in their approach to training and desire to compete. It will be a super spring here in the NEC and I can’t wait to see everyone in action.”
St. Francis (PA) elected to opt out of all fall sports moved to the spring, while Central Connecticut State opted out of playing football in the spring.
For the six schools contesting games in the spring (Duquesne, Sacred Heart, Wagner, LIU, Merrimack and Bryant, the following league schedule rules were established:
Four-game conference schedule to be contested over four weeks (Mar. 7- March 28) with potential for up to two makeup weeks.
Games will be played on Sunday.
Single game NEC Championship will pit No. 2 at No. 1 on a date to be determined in April.
Top Conference Games of Spring 2021
Mar. 7 – Sacred Heart at Duquesne Mar. 14 – LIU at Sacred Heart Mar. 28 – Duquesne at Bryant
Here is the countdown my NEC teams’ predictions:
Coach: Tom Masella (First Season as Seahawks head coach, 44-66 Overall) Location: Staten Island, New York 2019 Record: 1-11 (1-6 NEC)
“It’s wonderful to welcome Tom Masella back to the Wagner family and home to Staten Island, where his career as a leader in football began decades ago,” said Wagner President Dr. Joel Martin said in early spring of 2020. “Building on the good work of his predecessors and tapping his extraordinary experience as a coach and mentor to young people, he will strengthen the proud tradition that is Seahawk football at Wagner College.”
A member of the Wagner Athletics Hall of Fame and Staten Island native, Masella returned to Grymes Hill after most recently serving as the defensive coordinator at Northeast Conference (NEC) rival Bryant.
“We’re thrilled to bring Coach Masella back to our football program,” AD Walt Hameline added. “His ties to Staten Island and the Wagner College community along with his proven track record as a coach make him a great fit for our football program. As a former Seahawk student-athlete and assistant coach here he knows what it takes to be successful on Grymes Hill and I’m confident he will help our student-athletes achieve their goals on the field and in the classroom.”
Masella inherits a team that last went 1-11 in 2019 and led to the firing of head coach Jason Houghtailing. He inherits a roster which has 41 true freshman and 1 redshirt freshman on it. One of the few starters that return are senior WR Josh Decambre, who led the Seahawks with 675 receiving and 6 TDs.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the fall season was like none other for Merrimack College football coach Dan Curran.
“If you ask the players, it was like having spring practice in the fall,” said Curran, who is in his eighth year as head coach. “And that’s a good way of looking at it.”
Merrimack had two productive QBs last year in electric starter Christian Carter, who opted to transfer to Western Illinois after the season, and senior backup Cam Hayes, who graduated. It’s left with two red-shirt freshmen and three actual freshmen competing for the job — and little time to decide who will win it.
“It’s going to be tough to evaluate, but the good news is that we think they’re all very good,” said Curran. “Decision making was a little bit of a problem last year and I think all the guys we have now are strong at that.
The quarterback candidates are red-shirt freshmen Prince-Du Bey and Jack Esquivel and freshmen Malakai Anthony, Henri Bourque and John Perry. The Perry name is well known on campus. His father, also named John, is the former Merrimack head coach and a longtime assistant coach with the NFL’s Houston Texans, Of the returnees, Curran is impressed with Esquivel’s arm strength while Prince-Dru Bey is more of a dual threat with a good command of the game. Of the freshmen, Anthony has great strength and adds a different dimension as a lefty, Bourque is a terrific athlete who is the fastest of the group and Perry has a great understanding of the game and is an excellent decision maker..
“We’re excited by all these guys — they all have talent,” said Curran. “It’s a real competitive situation. We may rely a little more on our running backs as our young guys (at quarterback) get acclimated,” said Curran. “The good thing is that we have more overall talent and more depth than we’ve ever had, on both sides of the ball. That’s really going to help us.”
All in all, the confident Curran seems highly upbeat that the Warriors can continue their strong thrust into Division 1. Settling on the next starting quarterback will only add to that confidence.
A rising senior, defensive lineman Anthony Lavio was tabbed to the preseason team, in a vote conducted by the league’s coaches. He is the first-ever Shark to earn Preseason All-NEC accolades. In the Sharks’ first season at Division I, Lavio started all 10 games on the line for LIU, tallying 25 tackles, including five tackles for loss and one forced fumble. He had a season-high four tackles in two NEC games, against Sacred Heart and eventual NEC champion CCSU.
This season’s spring will be LIU’s first since the death of former redshirt junior quarterback Clayton Beathard, who was stabbed to death during a fight outside of Dogwood Bar & Grill in Nashville, Tennessee, during the early-morning hours of Dec. 21, 2019.
“This team has faced so much adversity,” Collins said. “Going from an undefeated [regular season] Division II team to a winless Division I team in one year, and we had some tragic events hit our team, such as our quarterback, Clayton Beathard, being murdered, and we dealt with that, and the COVID issues.” Conor Regan, a graduate transfer from the University of Northern Colorado, has emerged as LIU’s starter after the team’s recent quarterback competition. He played in 10 games in 2019 as a backup for Northern Colorado, completing 13 of 23 passes for 107 yards and one interception.
“He’s poised and played in some big games at the FCS level,” Collins said. “[He’s] just a little more comfortable out there on the field in seeing some things. We think he gives us the best chance to win.” Collins touched on what a victory over Bryant would mean to the program after last winning on Nov. 10, 2018.
“We just need to get back out on that field together and compete,” he said. “I know we want to win in the worst way. We’ve been waiting a long time to get one and I think it could do our program some good.”
Coach: Chris Merritt (2nd Season, 4-8 Overall) Location: Smithfield, Rhode Island 2019 Record: 4-8 (3-4 NEC)
Three members of the Bryant University football team – Andre Brackett, Luke Samperi and Mike Andrejco – were named to the Preseason All-NEC team that was announced during Thursday’s Northeast Conference Virtual Media Day in the summer of 2020.
Brackett was listed as a return specialist, Samperi a kicker and Andrejco was one of five offensive linemen selected.
One of the league’s premier corners, Brackett picks up preseason honors as one of the NEC’s best returners entering the 2020 season. Brackett made his eight kick returns count in 2019, finishing with 252 return yards (31.5 average) and a touchdown. The touchdown was an electrifying 95-yarder to open the Bulldogs’ nationally-televised game against Long Island. Brackett also posted career highs in tackles (56) and interceptions (3) last fall.
Samperi was a Second Team All-NEC kicker last fall after tying the Bryant single-season record with 11 field goals. After earning a scholarship prior to the start of the season, Samperi went 11-for-14 in field goal attempts and 20-of-22 in PAT attempts to become just the second kicker in DI program history to earn all-league honors. Samperi was automatic inside 40 yards, making all eight of his attempts. He also added a career-high 50-yarder, becoming just the second kicker in program history to make a field goal of 50+ yards.
Andrejco will be the anchor of Bryant’s offensive line this fall. The New Jersey native has appeared in all but one game over the course of his three seasons, starting 22 of the last 23. Andrejco was a Phil Steele Third Team All-NEC selection in 2018.
Head coach Jerry Schmitt enters his 16th season at the helm of the Duquesne program. He became the Dukes’ all-time winningest coach in 2019 with a 30-21 victory over Saint Francis U for his 98th win as Duquesne’s head coach. Schmitt passed Greg Gattuso (1993-2004) for the most wins in program history.
Duquesne will need to replace 16 starters from the 2019 campaign including eight on each side of the ball.
The Dukes lost their two top quarterbacks on the depth chart to graduation following the 2019 season. Daniel Parr started for two years under center, leading Duquesne to its fifth NEC title and first FCS Playoff win in 2018. When Parr went down with an injury in 2019, fifth-year senior Brett Brumbaugh stepped in for the final three contests of the season.
Ohio transfer Joe Mischler is slated to start the season for Duquesne. The Erie, Pa. native played in three games for the Bobcats in 2019, completing one pass for 23 yards in a 52-3 win at Akron. Mischler was an all-state selection at Cathedral Prep High School, tallying 7,719 passing yards and 98 touchdowns in his career.
The Dukes featured a pair of All-NEC selections at running back in 2019 – Duquesne’s all-time leading rusher A.J. Hines as well as graduate transfer Mark Allen. The pair of backs combined for 1,469 yards and 10 touchdowns that season.
The Dukes will look to replicate this production with new faces in 2021. Mercyhurst graduate transfer Garrett Owens headlines the depth chart in the backfield for Duquesne. Owens was a two-time All-PSAC West selection for the Lakers, he rushed for 2,743 yards and 31 touchdowns in three seasons.
Ky’ren Cunningham returns after starting the final game of the 2019 campaign vs. No. 18 CCSU, tallying a career-best 96 rushing yards. Billy Lucas looks to make his Duquesne debut in the backfield after redshirting in 2019.
A big reason for Duquesne’s success in the running game has been the Dukes’ consistent offensive line play in recent years. Tight end/fullback Billy O’Malley has started the last three years for Duquesne and garnered preseason All-NEC honors prior to this season. Jake Dixon, who started at tight end for the Dukes, has moved to the offensive line for the upcoming season. Ryan Johnson also started all 11 games at right guard in 2019.
At wide receiver, the Dukes graduated their two top receiving targets in Kellon Taylor and Kareem Coles Jr. Senior Dominic Thieman returns after ranking third on the team in receiving in 2019 with 22 receptions for 314 yards and two touchdowns. Davie Henderson sat fourth on the team with 15 catches for 244 yards and a pair of touchdowns, as well. Duquesne also added Saint Francis U transfer Cyrus Holder, who finished with 62 catches for 1,150 yards and nine touchdown receptions in three seasons for the Red Flash.
Defensive backs Spencer DeMedal and Harvey Clayton Jr. return for the Dukes after starting the last two seasons at safety. DeMedal, a preseason All-NEC selection, has tallied 129 career tackles with 10 passes defended and a pair of interceptions.
Leandro DeBrito is also back for Duquesne after sitting out the 2019 campaign. Sophomore Ezekiel Daure started the final two games of the 2019 season at cornerback. Duquesne has added depth in the defensive backfield with a trio of transfers in Ryan Webb (Marist), TJ Johnson (Cincinnati) and Temitope Agoro (Notre Dame).
The Dukes welcome back linebacker sophomore Connor Barrett who started the final seven games of the 2019 season and recorded 28 tackles (18 solo) in his first season on The Bluff. Fellow sophomore linebacker Todd Hill finished 2019 with 20 tackles including 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble in five games before his season was cut short due to injury. Jahan Worth and Anthony Dellovade have both seen playing time at the linebacker position for the Dukes and return in 2021.
Duquesne graduated its leading tackler Brendan Thompson, who posted 75 tackles in 2019 and earned All-NEC honors as a senior.
Up front, Maxi Hradecny and Lucas D’Orazio both bring experience to Duquesne’s defensive line. Hradecny started a pair of games and tallied 14 tackles on the year while D’Orazio added 16 tackles with 2.5 TFL. The Dukes added some depth on the line with transfers Nathan Proctor Jr. (Virginia Tech) and A.J. Garson (UConn). Duquesne will need to replace a pair of All-NEC selections on the defensive line in Kam Carter and Chris Favoroso in addition to two-year starter Mike O’Malley.
On special teams, Duquesne will look to replace Mitch MacZura, who earned all-conference honors at both kicker and punter, starting at both positions for three seasons. Zach Sterr returns as well as Brian Bruzdewicz, who joins the Dukes after playing for the Duquesne soccer team in 2019.