The Salem News
BEVERLY — Arguably more than any other phrase in sports, head coaches dread the words “rebuilding year.”
Endicott football coach JB Wells doesn’t blink at the thought of graduating an important senior class. Wells knows reconstruction is that much easier when the foundation never changes.
After Endicott pulled out a 34-14 home victory over Norwich in the Eastern College Athletic Conference Division 3 North Atlantic Bowl, the Gulls hoisted their second straight ECAC Bowl trophy after winning the Northeastern Football Conference three seasons ago.
“I think we’re on a roll, but it’s really having developed our program’s culture so that we have enough guys that understand what we are trying to do. It doesn’t matter who’s doing it because the next guy can step in and crank it up,” said Wells. “We don’t want to be on a roll, we want to be consistently competitive and to be right there challenging for the league championship, ECAC championship and (Division 3) national championship.”
To put it bluntly, the Gulls always have spare pieces so when the machine needs new parts, Endicott can replace them without slowing down.
Last season, the Gulls graduated over 20 seniors including the school record holder in touchdown passes in Phil Konopka and the school’s top defensive player, Kevin Eagan, who earned a training camp tryout with the Indianapolis Colts. That didn’t stop this year’s squad from going 9-2 with a dominant performance in their second straight bowl victory.
The last three seasons, Endicott is 28-6 with an appearance in the NCAA Division 3 tournament.
“I think a lot of people doubted how good we could be with the graduation of all those great guys from last year,” explained Wells. “What’s really awesome about this team is we are maybe an even better team than we were last year. Our talent level wasn’t the same (as last year) but the buy in and work level was better. To be 9-2 is awesome.”
Saturday the Gulls didn’t have the same slow start they had in last year’s ECAC bowl win over Mt. Ida. Andrew Lawson blocked a Norwich punt on the Cadets first drive of the game setting up Endicott with a first and goal from the two-yard-line. Jared DiBiase plunged into the end zone from a yard out two plays later. The blocked punt gave this year’s Gulls team the school record in blocked kicks.
Before the end of the first quarter, Endicott would lead 20-0.
“You don’t return a kickoff and then they block a punt and their first offensive possession is on the two yard line. You can’t start the game like that against a good football team and put yourself behind,” said Norwich head coach Mark Murnyack. “They were able to get on us a little bit. I think with this football team (Norwich) we have some character and some great leaders on this team so we were able to come back in the third quarter and make it manageable. We couldn’t quite hang on in the end.”
The Cadets (7-3) would rally behind their run game (174 yards total) in the second half. All Georgio rushed in a five-yard touchdown in the third quarter before signal caller Kris Sabourin found Adam Fraser for a 15-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The Gulls responded with their veterans. Senior wideout Mike Murphy caught a pair of touchdowns while junior signal caller Drew Frenette was named the MVP of the game going 21 of 33 for 248 yards and two TD’s. Murphy burned his defender with a nice outside-in double-move before hauling in a spectacular 14-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter after fighting through pass interference to make it 13-0 Gulls.
Then, after Fraser’s touchdown catch made it 20-13 in the fourth quarter, Murphy caught a quick screen-pass, got a block from Ian Suter, and weaved his way for a 55-yard touchdown catch that all but iced the game.
“Big players make big plays in big games. We needed a spark and for someone to get us going,” said Wells. “They ran an inside blitz, so everything was open. Murph (Murphy) catches it gets a block from Suter and he is off to the races. That was difference in the game. He really had to make things happen on that long run to get into the end zone.”
Mike Wheeler, who had a four-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, helped Endicott run the clock out late in the fourth quarter with a couple tough, physical runs before he put the icing on the cake with an 18-yard touchdown run on a toss to the left.
DiBiase and Wheeler combined for 165 yards and three touchdowns.
“Anytime you have your running back grinding, it’s awesome. He’s (Wheeler) electric any time he touches the ball,” noted Wells. “He is a big play guy in terms of yardage. Jared (DiBiase) is a big play guy in terms of juice and just punishing someone on a 10 yard run. That was the story all season-those two guys are awesome.”
Mike Lago intercepted Sabourin in the red zone with just less than two minutes left to end the game.