Zach Thomann, Assistant Sports Editor
The Utica College football team has had a below 500 win percentage throughout program history, and after surpassing last season’s win total of four, the team has a good chance of winning the most games in school history this year (eight).
The team is currently 6-2 and with two games left, they are looking ahead to the playoffs. There could be multiple reasons for an abrupt turnaround such as experience, coaching and luck, but what may have made the biggest difference doesn’t involve sports at all.
Utica has recently lowered their tuition drastically, which has attracted the most students in history. Although the head football coach, Blaise Faggiano, said that there is the same amount of freshmen on their roster as any other year, the quality of his players has improved.
This freshmen class has provided Faggiano with more options and added depth to his team.
Depth is crucial to Faggiano, especially for special teams.
“The depth gives us the ability to not use upperclassmen on special teams and keep the starters healthy,” Faggiano said.
Faggiano gave an example of his depth with his freshman tight end, JJ O’Connor, who played a factor against Ithaca after an injury. He caught three passes for 34 yards after only catching one pass the first six games.
Without the tuition drop, the complexion of the Utica football team changes. Athletes like freshman defensive lineman, John Derby, would have considered a different school.
“The reset did play a factor in my decision,” Derby said. “After seeing the price I had to pay, it was an easy choice.”
Derby currently has 21 tackles through seven games and continues to have an impact for the team.
When coaches like the recruiting coordinator, Marcus Gurdineer, went to recruit athletes, the staff had the ability to lie out how much tuition would be versus previous years where many recruits had to guess what they needed to pay. Gurdineer used this to convince recruits that were considering Utica to commit.
“The tuition drop leveled the playing field against state schools,” Gurdineer said.
Utica College Athletic Director, David Fontaine, has not credited the recent success of the football team to the tuition reset just yet.
“It’s too early to tell if the tuition drop will help sports programs,” Fontaine said. “Most recruits don’t have an impact for their team until junior year.”
Fontaine was unable to see any solid data on the fall sports team’s improvement with only half a season of data. The tuition reset may not have had a huge impact on this year’s sports programs, but Fontaine believes that the reset has helped the recruiting process.
There may be only a small impact from this year’s freshmen class, but results show that something has changed in the football program. Last season, the Utica football team went 2-5 in games decided by 10 points or less as compared to this season where they are 2-2.
“When a game is that close, one or two plays can determine who wins,” Faggiano said.
The freshmen have helped finish games and also prevented games from being close due to the depth they provide.
The defense in particular has benefitted from added depth. Three freshmen on the defensive line have combined for 58 tackles, which is a large amount of the total tackles the defensive line has.
Utica also has key starting freshman, which is not common for a Division III school. Desmond Akpanoko was recruited as a place kicker and plans to be a starter for the next four years. There are many schools that have a computer science program, but what set Utica College apart from the rest was the tuition reset.
“The tuition reset was a huge factor in my decision because it made it more affordable for my parents,” Akpanoko said.
Without the tuition drop, Akpanoko would have considered other schools.
Another standout freshman is running back, Lindell Reed, who has the second most carries on the team. Reed has a third of the carries compared to what senior, Ryan Burnett, has, but nearly twice as many touchdown with nine so far this year. He leads the team in touchdowns by any skilled position, which gives the coaching staff a quality running back when Burnett graduates.
It is hard to tell how important the tuition reset will be for the football program and any other sports team at Utica until the freshmen have a couple seasons of experience. If Utica continues to excel and win their first bowl game, Faggiano believes that the depth he accumulated from solid recruiting will be the reason why.