Two-time Verizon/CoSIDA College Division Academic All-District defensive back Paul Whiting '04
Jeffs Return High-Powered Running Game, Experienced Quarterback in 2003
August 25, 2003
AMHERST, MA - After graduating 16 players on both sides of the ball, many of them three- or four-year starters and some among the best players in school history, 2002 presented some interesting challenges for head coach E.J. Mills and the Amherst football program, beginning with the season opener against Bates, a team they hadn’t played since 1999, right down to the season-finale against archrival Williams, which would travel to Pratt Field with a 15-game winning streak and a wealth of momentum in tow. The Jeffs answered the critics early on, jumping out to a 4-0 start with convincing wins over Bates (19-0), Bowdoin (42-20), Middlebury (17-10) and Colby (14-0), setting the stage for a highly anticipated matchup at Little Three rival Wesleyan in Week 5. In front of a raucous Homecoming crowd, hopes for an undefeated season fell by the wayside, however, as the Jeffs forced Wesleyan into five turnovers but had a last-second field goal attempt blocked en route to a heartbreaking 14-13 loss - Wesleyan’s first victory over Amherst since 1993. Wary of another letdown, the Jeffs rebounded with a 27-24 overtime win over Tufts, overcoming six turnovers and a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to improve to 5-1 on the season, but mustered just 171 yards of total offense the following week in a 21-14 loss at Trinity. Despite having home field advantage, Amherst entered its season finale against Williams as a sizeable underdog. The vaunted Ephs were coming off a lopsided 41-7 win over Wesleyan and hadn’t tasted defeat since a 20-12 setback at Amherst on November 11, 2000. Nevertheless, the Jeffs pulled off one of their most stunning upsets in recent memory, shocking Williams 45-35 in front of a Homecoming crowd over 8,000 strong, after which the student body uprooted the goal post from Pratt Field's west end zone and marched triumphantly through campus. The victory marked the fourth time Amherst has denied Williams a perfect season, having pulled the trick in 1942 (12-6 Amherst), 1964 (20-7 Amherst), 1995 (0-0 tie) and again in 2002.
“To beat Williams in a setting like that in such convincing fashion made us feel pretty good about our season,” said Mills, who enters his seventh year as head coach at Amherst. “But it was a good year, not a great one. We didn’t win the Little Three or the league, and there were definitely some things we can learn from and improve upon.”
When all was said and done, the Jeffs finished the season tops in the NESCAC in rushing offense (192.9 ypg), punt returns (14.1 yd. avg.), fourth down conversions (80.0%) and red zone defense (allowed opponents a 55.3% success rate), and second in pass defense (137.9 ypg), pass efficiency (122.7), pass efficiency defense (92.7), sacks (23.0), sacks allowed (7.0) and PAT kicking (19-for-21). They also placed four players on the 2002 Verizon/CoSIDA College Division Academic All-District Team, the most of any school in the region, had nine players earn All-NESCAC honors, including five on defense and six first-team selections, and placed six players on the ECAC Division III Northeast All-Star Team, tying Williams, Middlebury and Springfield Colleges for the most selections in the region.
Amherst once again graduates 16 seniors on both sides of the ball, with the offensive line taking the biggest hit. Hulking left tackle Rob Vernicek, a three-time All-NESCAC selection and first-team pick in 2002, played nearly every offensive snap over four seasons, as did graduated right tackle Brendan Carolan, a Second-Team All-NESCAC and First-Team Verizon/CoSIDA College Division Academic All-District selection as a senior. Along with Vernicek and Carolan, co-captain fullback Jeff Ryan, a Second-Team All-NESCAC honoree and a punishing lead blocker, helped spearhead the conference’s top-rated rushing offense. Kevin Kennard was another productive running back despite battling injuries in 2001 and 2002. The Jeffs also graduate a trio of wide receivers - Brian Hart, Todd Gately and J.P. Zito. One of the team’s hardest workers and smartest players, Zito earned Second-Team All-NESCAC and First-Team Verizon/CoSIDA College Division Academic All-District honors after leading the team in catches (34), receiving yards (609) and touchdowns (seven). Hart hauled in six catches as a junior and five as a senior. Veteran quarterback Jeff Browne was a competent backup, completing 15 passes for 163 yards in four games in 2002 after finishing sixth in the NESCAC with a 99.8 efficiency rating in 2001.
The defense has sizeable shoes to fill as well, especially in the secondary. First-Team All-NESCAC and ECAC Division III Northeast All-Star free safety Jeremy Carroll led the conference and finished seventh in the nation with seven interceptions (0.9 per gm.), tying Brian Daoust ’01 for the Amherst single-season record and falling just two shy of the all-time NESCAC mark. Hard hitting strong safety Paul Miceli logged 59 tackles to go along with 3.0 sacks and an interception. Cornerback Joe Rubbone was fifth on the team with 52 tackles and paced the defense with eight pass breakups. On the defensive line, co-captain tackle Pat Hayes was yet another First-Team All-NESCAC pick and a First-Team ECAC Division III Northeast All-Star. Fellow tackle Ryan Moriarty was among the team leaders with 3.0 sacks, 4.0 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.
Amherst’s special teams were also hit by graduation, losing punter Geoff Bough, place-kicker Mike Proman and long snapper Grant Webb. Bough, a First-Team All-NESCAC and First-Team ECAC Northeast All-Star selection in 2001, followed suit with a healthy 36.9-yard average as a senior. Proman was of just 11 players from NCAA Divisions I-AA, II, III and the NAIA named to the 11th Annual American Football Coaches Association Good Works team, honoring college football players across the country for their dedication and commitment to community service. He also converted a whopping four onside kicks in 2002.
Despite graduating its best wideout and two of its top offensive linemen, offense will once again be a strong suit for Amherst. Junior quarterback Marsh Moseley (New Orleans, LA) burst on to the scene in 2001 as a two-time NESCAC Rookie of the Week selection; once after coming off the bench to throw a pair of touchdown passes in a 23-0 win over Wesleyan, and again after finishing 13-for-30 for 138 yards in a 28-10 win against Trinity. He battled injuries early on as a sophomore, but finished with 74 completions for 945 yards and 11 touchdowns, highlighted by a 237-yard, three-touchdown performance in the dramatic season-ending win over Williams. Waiting in the wings are a pair of sophomores - Austin Martin (Westhampton Beach, NY), who impressed the coaching staff with his outstanding play on the practice squad, and Joe Bickerstaffe (Norfolk, MA), who broke his collar bone in the 2002 preseason but should be ready to go in 2003. Senior wideout Jim Devine (Centreville, VA), a one-time quarterback and one of the team’s top athletes, could also step behind center if necessary.
Senior quad-captain offensive tackle Matt Fitzgerald
A fully stocked backfield should help ease the pressure on Moseley, led by First-Team All NESCAC, First-Team Verizon/CoSIDA College Division Academic All-District and Second-Team ECAC Division III Northeast All-Star senior tailback Fletcher Ladd (Amherst, NH), who fell just 72 yards shy of the Amherst single-season record with 1,148 rushing yards as a junior. Ladd, a D3football.com Preseason All-American, virtually carried the rushing attack in 2002 and has run for at least 100 yards in eight of his last 11 games, but the Jeffs boast three other tailbacks - sophomores Ngai Otieno (Gloucester, MA) and Dom Cama (Miami Lakes, FL) and junior Matt Monteith (Madison, CT) - who are more than capable of stepping to the forefront. Otieno earned NESCAC Rookie of the Week honors after rushing for 97 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s season-ending 45-35 win over Williams, while Monteith finished the season with 114 yards on 34 carries and Cama rushed twice for 30 yards. Ryan’s graduation at fullback leaves somewhat of a void, but the coaching staff is excited about a pair of punishing, physical backs - sophomore Zach Bucuvalas (Wyoming, OH) and junior Brad Backus (Richmond, VA) - as well as junior Chris Riordan (Franklin, MA) and sophomore Kyle Hunt (Mashpee, MA).
Devine is ready to step to the forefront at wide receiver, logging five receptions for 47 yards, including a critical game-tying touchdown grab in last season’s 27-24 come-from-behind win over Tufts. However, fleet-footed junior Jay Wagstaff (Tewksbury, MA) is the team’s top returning pass catcher, with 19 receptions for 163 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore. He was also a First-Team All-NESCAC and Second-Team ECAC Division III Northeast All-Star selection, and a Preseason All-America pick this season, as the Jeffs’ top kick returner. Juniors Russell Lee (Lorton, VA) and Taharqa Patterson (New York, NY) and sophomores Mark Krafft (Washington, DC) and Rob Brown (Queens, NY) boast a wealth of potential and will provide added depth at wideout.
On the offensive line, senior Matt Fitzgerald (W. Roxbury, MA) started at right guard last season. He and classmate W. Gee Roe (Winter Haven, FL) and are poised to take over for Vernicek and Carolan at left and right tackle, respectively. Junior Sean Carroll (Foxboro, MA) started at center in 2002 and is ready to pick up where he left off, while senior Shane Morrow (Coral Springs, FL) is another returning starter at left guard and fellow senior Emmanuel Ashamu (Charlottesville, VA) should replace Fitzgerald at right guard. Senior Chris Dobbins (Medford, MA) will also see action up front, and junior Brian Lyons (Trenton, NJ) and sophomore Barrett Lopez (Chicago, IL) are ready to step in when called upon.
At tight end, senior Alex Popp (Walpole, MA) returns with three seasons under his belt, while junior Ryan Sykes (Charleston, SC), who made great strides as a sophomore, is primed for an equally prominent role. Both are excellent blockers and able receivers when called upon.
Aside from a somewhat depleted secondary, Amherst’s defense, which held opponents to a meager 15.5 points per game last season and finished second in the NESCAC with 23.0 sacks, remains virtually intact, especially at inside linebacker, where the Jeffs return two of their three top tacklers from 2002; junior Dave Borgonzi (Everett, MA) and senior Ed Sylvester (Scituate, MA). Borgonzi was far and away the Jeffs’ leading tackler with 73 takedowns, including a team-high 34 solos and 3.5 for loss. Sylvester logged 60 tackles and matched Borgonzi with 3.5 for loss. Junior inside linebacker Mike Salvatore (Greenwich, CT) took the field in Sylvester’s brief absence last season and had a mammoth game against Bowdoin, torching the Polar Bears for a career- and game-high 17 tackles, a sack and an interception in his first career start, earning NESCAC Defensive Player of the Week, ECAC Player of the Week and Don Hansen's Weekly Football Gazette National Quad-Defensive Player of the Week honors. Sophomores Justin Roemer (Jupiter, FL), Nick Canevari (Warwick, NY) and Ryan McDowell (Tolland, CT) had productive off-seasons and will also vie for playing time.
Senior quad-captain inside linebacker Ed Sylvester
The Jeffs return both starting outside linebackers as well in seniors Dan McNamara (Norwell, MA) and Jordan Konicek (Pinedale, WY). McNamara paced the defense with 6.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles as a junior. Konicek shared playing time with then rookie Gavin Weeks (Cranford, NJ), combining for 25 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Junior T. Bennett (Mt. Vernon, NY) could also see action.
On the defensive line, the Jeffs have more than enough ammo to reload in Hayes’ and Moriarty’s absence. Senior Mike Harrison (Hanover, MA), juniors B.J. Gaddour (Mequon, WI) and Aaron Gregory (Potomac, MD) and sophomore Ryan McMullen (Fair Lawn, NJ) will man the tackles. Harrison brings the most experience, with 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2002. Gaddour added 3.5 sacks, and McMullen is ready for action after a year away from football. Nose guard Mike Hanlon (Worcester, MA) returns for his senior season after combining with returning sophomore L.J. Spinnato (Madison, CT) for 26 tackles last fall.
The secondary graduated its starting free safety (Carroll), starting strong safety (Miceli) and one of its starting cornerbacks (Rubbone), but returns a two-year starter in senior cornerback Paul Whiting (Mission Viejo, CA). Whiting, a three-sport standout and a two-time Verizon/CoSIDA College Division Academic All-District selection, finished with 39 tackles, two interceptions and five pass breakups as a junior. Junior Rob Walsh (Fair Lawn, NJ) played some last year and will man the opposite corner, as will classmate Bryan Dolan (Londonderry, NH), who could also see action at both safety slots. Junior Bob Sargent (Centreville, VA) played in all eight games at free safety in 2002. Fellow junior Chris Scarpelli (Wyckoff, NJ) will vie for time at strong safety, along with senior Grier Jones (Mendham, NJ). Additionally, sophomores James and Julian Seltzer (Hull, MA) move from running back to the secondary, where they’ll be joined by classmate Nick Zieler (Evergreen Park, IL).
The kicking game was a potent weapon in 2002, with then sophomore David Bodner (Atlantic Beach, NY) emerging as the top place-kicker in the NESCAC and Bough lending much needed consistency (and a 36.9-yard average) to the punter position. The good news is Bodner is back, coming off a season in which he led the conference and broke a league and school record with eight field goals, earning First-Team All-NESCAC and Second-Team ECAC Division III Northeast All-Star honors. The bad news is Bough has graduated, leaving the Jeffs with athletes who can punt, but no true punters. Look for Ladd, Zieler or an incoming first-year to man the position.
There are no question marks in the kick and punt return games, however, as Wagstaff returns as a Don Hansen's National Weekly Football Gazette Second-Team Preseason All-American. He led the Jeffs in both categories as sophomore, topping the conference and finishing 18th in the nation in punt return average (14.1 yards per return) and pacing the team with 294 kick return yards.
The Jeffs will play a challenging eight-game NESCAC slate, highlighted by the season opener at Bates on Saturday, September 20, and the home opener against Bowdoin on Saturday, September 27. Homecoming kicks off Saturday, October 18, against Little Three rival Wesleyan, followed by a Family Weekend matchup with visiting Trinity on Saturday, November 1. Amherst closes its season with the “Biggest Little Game in America” - the 118th meeting with archrival Williams, Saturday, November 8, in Williamstown, which will be regionally televised on FoxSportsNet New England.