It says a lot that Wagner coach Tom Masella can roll out a clip from what should have been a non-descript play during spring practice earlier this year.
Linebacker Titus Leo, on a struggling team yet perhaps the league’s best player, ran full speed for 70 yards in Masella’s estimation to track down a ball carrier who had broken free following a screen pass.
“Why can’t everybody do it?” Masella says in a teaching moment.
In some ways, Northeast Conference coaches have come to expect that type of effort, even demand it, because it’s the only way for success given the gritty, physical, rock-‘em-sock-‘em nature of their games.
Sacred Heart knows it all well. The Pioneers were favored in the NEC’s preseason poll, which was unveiled during the conference’s social media day Wednesday. If they fulfill the prediction, they would become the first program in conference history to advance to the FCS playoff appearances in three straight seasons, adding to the four trips they’ve made under coach Mark Nofri since 2013.
There are roadblocks ahead, including a Nov. 5 trip to Duquesne. The Pioneers (8-4, 6-1 last year) barely clipped the Dukes (7-3, 5-2) in the poll, and both teams tied for the most selections on the NEC preseason team with seven each out of 27 overall.
“We talk about it all the time,” Nofri said, “to be good and to win football games, you’ve got to make sacrifices. It’s not about yourself, it’s about the team, and it’s about the culture that I think we’ve built here.”
Sacred Heart boasts a playoff-experienced quarterback in Marquez McCray, NEC rushing leader and reigning offensive player of the year Malik Grant, and arguably the league’s second-best returning defensive player to Leo in end Kevin Peprah. Duquesne returns two signal callers with Joe Mischler coming back from an ACL injury to rejoin Darius Perrantes, who led an FBS win over Ohio – the first in NEC history.
Sacred Heart, though, isn’t the only potential three-peat in the NEC. Leo, who at 6-foot-4, 245 pounds will transition forward from linebacker to defensive end this season, will seek to become the first player in league history to win three player of the year awards – either offense or defense.
“This conference is definitely growing,” said Saint Francis coach Chris Villarrial, whose team hopes to be more than just a dark horse after going 4-3 in conference, with the losses by a combined five points. “I just see the players getting bigger, faster and stronger as these programs grow. It’s very exciting to see.”
Northeast Conference Preseason Poll
1. Sacred Heart (2021: 8-4, 6-1 NEC), 5 first-place votes
2. Duquesne (7-3, 5-2), 3
3. Saint Francis (5-6, 4-3)
4. Central Connecticut State (4-7, 4-3),
5. Merrimack (5-6, 2-5),
6.(tie) LIU (2-8, 2-5)
6.(tie) Wagner (0-11, 0-7)
8. Stonehill (8-2 Division II)