After everything that the 2012 Merrimack College football team had accomplished on the gridiron and all of the records that had fallen that season, all eyes turned to the 2013 campaign with sights on not only topping the previous year's achievements, but doing something that had not been done in four years: challenge for the Northeast-10 Conference crown.
Led by one of the nation's top offensive units, a gritty defensive unit that made enormous strides as the season progressed and the combined efforts of a number of returning stars, unproven veterans that enjoyed breakout campaigns, and the addition of several first-year stalwarts who made their rookie campaigns memorable, Merrimack completed its best season in four years this fall, reaching the seven-win milestone for the first time since winning the league title back in 2009 while also doing something that had never happened in the program's 22-year history.
Pegged to finish fifth in the league's preseason poll, Merrimack opened the eyes of coaches not only in the conference, but the country after shocking Division I Wagner College, on the road, nonetheless, in the season opener. In what will go down as one of the biggest wins in school history, the Warriors traveled to Staten Island, N.Y., to take on the Northeast Conference's reigning champion; adding to the daunting task was the additional fact that the Seahawks had advanced to the NCAA FCS Tournament Second Round the previous year and boasted one of the most dynamic running backs at the FCS level.
But none of that fazed the Warriors, led by first-year head coach Dan Curran, who took to the turf and opened up what would become a rollercoaster of a season in exhilarating fashion. Senior Quinn McDonough (Medford, Mass.) fielded the opening kickoff of the season at around his own 3-yard line and promptly gashed through a few charging Wagner kick coverage members and, suddenly, was all alone charging down the field and into the Seahawks' end zone for a season-opening, 97-yard kickoff return.
That would set the stage for one of the most electric games played this season, as Merrimack built itself a two-possession lead before Wagner charged back to go ahead in the third quarter. Senior quarterback Joe Clancy (Newburyport, Mass.) responded with a touchdown strike of his own before the Seahawks went ahead by six points, putting the ball back in Clancy's hands with nearly 2:30 remaining.
The reigning NE-10 Offensive Player of the Year calmly marched his troops down field, cutting apart the Wagner defense with completion after completion before – finally – he found classmate Shane Ferguson (Point Pleasant Beach, N.J.) in the right corner of the end zone for the game's deciding score. When it was all said and done, it would be Merrimack – the labeled underdog playing against a team that was supposed to be too skilled and too quick to keep up with – that was ahead, as the Warriors posted their first-ever win over a Division I school, 42-41, for a win that will be remembered for years to come.
Even after that incredible win, Merrimack had no time to rest on its laurels, turning its sights now to the gauntlet that was the NE-10 schedule. Appropriately enough, Merrimack was scheduled to face preseason favorite American International – on the road, no less – in its very first league game.
What happened that next Friday would give the Wagner game a run for its money in terms of excitement. Both sides combined for over 1,300 yards of total offense, with Clancy setting a new league single-game record in passing yards (571) in the process. He and AIC quarterback Kevin Arduino gave the home crowd at Abdow Field an offensive display unlike any other, as both sides exploded for 41 points in the third quarter, as the Yellow Jackets took a 41-34 lead into the final frame.
After a Merrimack field goal cut the deficit to four, AIC quickly answered to go up by 11. From there on out, both sides would trade scores until the final horn sounded with the Yellow Jackets on top, 62-50.
A week later, the Warriors again were on the road to face a much-improved Southern Connecticut squad, and yet again, the Warriors found themselves in the midst of a Friday night barnburner. Both sides were all even at 21-21 after 30 minutes, but the difference in the game came late in regulation; after Merrimack scored to claw to within six, SCSU responded with a game-deciding, 98-yard drive to send Merrimack to its second straight heartbreaking loss.
But despite the two crushing losses, Merrimack responded with a six-game stretch that saw the team go 5-1, highlighted by a gritty road win at LIU Post (26-21), a Homecoming Weekend thriller against rival Bentley (40-34) and a 31-21 victory at an Assumption team that boasted one of the best defenses in the country going in. The only loss in that span was another back-and-forth affair between the Warriors and defending league champion New Haven early in October, but despite that the Warriors went into the final week of the regular season with a chance to make history.
Hosting a Stonehill team that had already clinched a spot in the NE-10 Championship, Merrimack fought tooth and nail with one of the league's best before falling in the regular season finale. Still, the Warriors drew Southern Connecticut on NE-10 Championship Weekend, and for the second year in a row, Merrimack won its final game of the season in front of its home fans. Making the come-from-behind, 35-24 victory against the Owls that much sweeter – in addition to the fact that it avenged an earlier loss at SCSU – was that it marked the 100th victory in the history of the program and also represented the team's seventh victory of the season, a milestone not reached since 2009.
While ultimately falling short of the goal of playing for the league crown, the Warriors took great pride in everything else that was accomplished this fall.
Ten Warriors earned NE-10 All-Conference honors: Clancy, seniors Artis Holt (Baltimore, Md.), Matt Tripicchio (Lake Zurich, Ill.) and Michael Hubbard (Wakefield, Mass.), as well as sophomore Jere Brown (Freeport, N.Y.) all were named to the All-League First Team; seniors Jimmy Holland (Billerica, Mass.), Ferguson and McDonough earned spots on the All-League Second Team; and finally, rookies Jared Mincey (Edison, N.J.) and Justin Mount (Westford, Mass.) each were named to the league's All-Rookie Team. For the second year in a row, Clancy was also named the league's Offensive Player of the Year.
The postseason honors would not stop there, as Clancy, Ferguson and Hubbard were all invited to participate in the 2013 National Bowl, an annual showcase of some of the best Division I FCS, Division II and Division III senior players from across the country. The trio gained the respect and recognition of several pro-team scouts earlier this month down at Florida International University in Miami.
Clancy, meanwhile, also garnered one of the most prestigious honors in program history after being named a Harlon Hill Regional Finalist; the senior quarterback was voted as one of the top-eight players in the region, and nearly moved on to the national ballot. The Newburyport, Mass., native also earned New England Football Writers Association All-New England honors, and finally, was named the 2013 Gridiron Football Club of Greater Boston Co-Offensive Player of the Year. He also became the first 4,000-yard passer in league history, and graduates as the all-time leader in every passing category despite just two years as a starter at Merrimack. Both he and Brown were picked to the Daktronics All-Super Region 1 Second Team, as well.
Finally, after the 2012 campaign was lauded as the greatest single-season output from the Merrimack offense in school history, 2013 certainly put an end to that argument, setting each of the following records:
- Passes Completed/Attempted: Clancy (396/615)
- Passing Yards: Clancy (4,116)
- Touchdown Passes: Clancy (48)
- Receiving Touchdowns: Brown (17)
- Points: Brown (102)
- Kickoff Return Yards: McDonough (758)
- Points Scored (Team): 430
- First Downs (Team): 291
- Passing Yards (Team): 4,125
- Total Offensive Yards (Team): 5,383
- PAT: Nick Zwaan (51)
- Points by Kicking: Zwaan (72)
- Kick Returns: McDonough (29)
This is the second in a series of recaps summarizing a successful fall season at Merrimack.