Samuel Northrup, Editor-In-Chief
Playing in an out-of-conference matchup on the road, the Utica College Pioneers came away with a 9-6 win in overtime against the St. Lawrence University Saints to open their 2018 season.
While the game was far from a shootout, head coach Blaise Faggiano had a lot to be happy about — after all, his offense was still able to gain 384 yards as chunks of turf built up and littered the grass field of Leckonby Stadium in Canton following an afternoon rain.
While the St. Lawrence game could simply be filed away as a tone-setting win, it was crucial to the Pioneers’ success as the team has repeatedly struggled to win in the later, colder weeks of October.
Over the last 10 seasons, the Pioneers have racked up a combined regular-season record of 47-53, beginning with Faggiano’s first year at UC. During the same timeframe, the team’s combined winning percentage during the final five games of each of those seasons is nearly one-third less at .320, equal to a 16-34 mark.
Comparatively, the Pioneers have experienced better results during the first five games of each of the last 10 years, tallying a 31-19 record.
These late-season slumps have also been accompanied by decreased scoring totals. Since 2008, the Pioneers have averaged 32 points in the first half of each season compared to 24 in the latter halves.
Now in his 11th year as head coach, Faggiano is well-versed in the factors, including team experience, scheduling and injury, that can contribute to the outcome of an entire season for a Division III football team.
Of all these factors, it is difficult to overlook the level of competition within the Empire 8 Athletic Conference, Faggiano explained.
Each member of the Empire 8 plays against each other once every regular season, making the bulk of the member team’s schedules rivalry games. Prior to these matchups, each Empire 8 football team will also play three out-of-conference games.
“It’s that kind of conference,” Faggiano said. “Literally, a play or two can swing games one way or the other, and very rarely do you see teams steamroll other teams in our conference. If a team is on the bottom, they aren’t there by much.”
By facing the same seven teams each year, Faggiano explained, there is a level of familiarity that comes into play each game. For example, a late-season matchup between two Empire 8 teams means there is more game film from the previous weeks of an opponent’s season that can be studied and analyzed.
“For us, defensively it helps when we have four or five films on Alfred’s offense,” Faggiano said. “Now, are they going to do something different [when we play]? Yeah, but at the end of the day they kind of are who they are. Part of that is the defense having film to prepare, where at the beginning of the year you have no idea what you may or may not see.”
While this much familiarity between opponents year after year could lead to more uniform outcomes, Empire 8 Commissioner Chuck Mitrano feels the opposite is true for his conference.
Mitrano, who validates each team’s newly plotted schedule following a majority vote by the athletic directors from each member school, explained there is a lack of parity in the Empire 8, evidenced by its lack of a repeat champion since restructuring was done to include the eight current schools that make up the conference.
“If you make it through and win the conference, you’ve really been battle-tested because of the quality of the teams that they’re playing,” Mitrano said. “It’s a credit to the conference because they’ve helped prepare those institutions for the success.”
Coincidentally, each team’s schedule shifts from out-of-conference opponents to seven consecutive Empire 8 matchups by mid-September, just as the fall season begins and temperatures and weather conditions change.
While Faggiano said that opponent familiarity and weather, especially rain, “absolutely” have an effect on games, he does not let those considerations become a part of the mindset or weekly game plans of his team — at the end of the day, “it’s football.”
His players, including team captain and quarterback-turned-wideout Peyton Miller, echo that sentiment.
“We attack every game like it’s the same,” Miller said. “We don’t account for the weather, we account for the team. We may make adjustments throughout the game, but a lot of it is on you [to execute each week’s game plan]. If it’s raining and the defense is loading the box, then we’re still going to throw the ball.”
While Miller may make minor physical adjustments to account for weather, including playing without gloves in the rain and slowing down on his breaks to ensure solid footing on wet fields, he said that the game of football comes down to being both mentally and physically “tough,” not what the elements and the schedule give you.
“It’s a long season, week-in, week-out,” Miller said. “You can’t let your guard down, you can’t slip; there’s so many little things that go into the games on Saturday. The great teams don’t mentally slip up halfway through the season and beyond. That’s what we’re trying to get over.”
Kicker Dan Tette is no stranger to mental toughness.
To play his position, which can make or break an entire team’s season with the swing of a leg, it is critical to make both the mental and physical adjustments to playing in harsher weather conditions. While Tette cannot control the weather, he can control his steps, follow through and the angle at which he kicks the ball depending on wind speed.
“You really have to believe in yourself that you’re putting the ball through the uprights,” Tette said. “It’s really the preparation; you’ve got to know what you’re dealing with when you get out there. In Upstate New York, you never know what you’re going to get.”
While Faggiano recognized that his team generally has success when they find ways to string wins together in late-October and early-November, he wants them focused on this season, not the missteps of the past.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into [winning and losing] to make too much of a generalization,” Faggiano said. “That’s the interesting thing about football — it’s never just one thing.”