Patrick Rivers, Assistant Sports Editor
The Utica College football team has gotten off to an impressive start to the 2016 season. For just the third time in program history, the Pioneers jumped out to a 4-0 record.
During the hot start, they defeated two nationally ranked opponents in Ohio-Northern and Cortland State.
After winning two tough games against worthy opponents, the Pioneers found themselves in the national spotlight. Not only were the Pioneers winning, but they were winning big. They were completing fourth-quarter comebacks, breaking school-records and making huge plays.
Sophomore defensive backs, Dehstin Smart and Matt Stone each made amazing plays to turn around close games in the favor of the Pioneers.
In week two, Stone caught an interception off a tipped pass and returned it 83-yards to the end zone to spark the Pioneers’ ferocious comeback. The play was well needed as the visiting Polar Bears were in the red zone and threatening to score and push their lead to 24 points.
Instead, the Pioneers were within 10 points and had just over six minutes left to play. This proved to be more than enough time as Utica executed the two-minute drill to perfection twice, scoring two touchdowns and pulling away victorious.
Stone ultimately received Division III football’s play of the week for his timely interception.
In week 4, Smart made a spectacular play of his own, but in jaw-dropping fashion. Smart described the interception as the biggest play of his football career, but quickly reassured that he’s not done making plays.
“So far, this is at the top of my list, but there is way more to come,” Smart said.
The play itself reached number six on Sports Center’s Top-10 segment and also won play of the week for Division III football.
Smart says it didn’t feel real seeing himself on national television and receiving calls and texts from all of his family and friends.
“It was just another game that I was well prepared for, and as a unit we were all well prepared,” he said.
As for the interception, he says he was in the right place at the right time.
“My eyes got big once I saw the ball in the air falling, and all I kept thinking was keep running to the ball,” Smart said.” Then, out of nowhere, the Cortland receiver fell under the ball and it bounced off his back. I saw my teammate Matt (McCoy) diving and the thought of the ball bouncing off his helmet never appeared. However, once it happened, I kept running to the ball and I made the play.”
Big plays have been the moral of the Pioneers’ season up to this point. Smart’s and Stone’s respective interceptions, Nicodemus Gambill’s kickoff return against Morrisville and Shawn Marchant’s game-winning touchdown catch against Cortland has fueled Utica’s success.
Furthermore, Senior Captain running back, Ryan Burnett, Empire 8 offensive player of the week for his 218 yard game against Cortland, which included one touchdown and put him fourth on the college’s all-time rushing list.
Freshman kicker, Desmond Akpanoko, also won Empire 8 special teams player of the week for his performance in the same game.
Numerous Pioneers have accomplished these feats over the years, but in the midst of the various transformations that Utica College is implementing, this couldn’t have come at a better time.
As of fall 2016, Utica College reset the cost of tuition, lowering it by 42 percent. Laura Casamento is the new president of the college, replacing retired president Todd Hutton.
The school also added a state-of-the-art sports dome in honor of former president Hutton. Utica has brought in the largest incoming freshman class in school-history along with additional changes to the campus.
The national attention UC has received will definitely grab the attention of current high school students and athletes.