BANGOR, Maine — Gabby Price’s goal is to make Husson University great within New England’s NCAA Division III football ranks.
But the veteran coach’s standard for achieving that level of success sometimes stretches just beyond the six-state region’s borders.
That’s why the Eagles’ hard-fought 20-7 victory over Union College of Schenectady, New York, last Saturday — Husson’s first win in a season opener since 2007 — was so satisfying.
Granted, Union hasn’t been a powerhouse in recent years, going winless in 2015. But the Dutchmen, winners of three games last fall under first-year coach Jeff Behrman, have been a longstanding competitive member of the Liberty League, which along with the Empire 8 are considered the top New York-based Division III football conferences.
“New York teams, we haven’t beaten many of them,” said Price after the Union game. “It’s better football than New England. We can say what we want in New England, but the Empire 8 and Liberty League are better than any league in New England. It just is, and a lot of people don’t want to say that.”
Union is one of three nonconference opponents Husson plays this fall in addition to its Eastern Collegiate Football Conference schedule that begins Saturday when the Eagles play at first-year ECFC member Dean College at Franklin, Massachusetts.
Husson has sought to increase the competitive level of its nonconference schedule in an effort to strengthen itself both for conference competition and potential NCAA playoff games. The Eagles have advanced to the NCAAs in two of the last three years but lost first-round contests both times.
“It’s just like pitching in baseball. You see 90 (miles per hour), you see 90, you see 90, you get used to it and it’s the same thing in football,” said Price of the tougher schedule. “What happens is you get used to playing certain teams, you get used to playing a certain level of competition.
“We’ve always said we want to be a great team in New England.”
Husson is set to move its football program to the Commonwealth Coast Conference in 2019. The CCC already includes Eagles’ other two nonconference foes this season, Western New England College and Endicott College.
Both should be formidable opponents despite losing their season openers last weekend.
Husson’s Sept. 23 road game against WNEC at Springfield, Massachusetts, will mark a rematch of their 2016 NCAA first-round playoff game won by WNEC 44-17. The Golden Bears were ranked 24th in this year’s NCAA Division III preseason poll.
Endicott, meanwhile, went 5-5 overall last season but played the 14th-toughest schedule in Division III nationally. The Gulls host Husson on Sept. 30 at Beverly, Massachusetts.
“We like to face adversity early so it can get us going for the end of the season,” said Husson senior tri-captain John Smith.
Smith nears state rushing mark
Husson tailback John Smith continued to increase his school career rushing record last weekend, gaining 142 yards on 30 carries in the victory against Union.
That upped his overall total to 5,105 yards, but just 4,823 of those yards are counted by the NCAA.
That’s because the senior from Fayetteville, Georgia, rushed for 282 yards during a 2016 game against Dean College, which at the time was competing not as an NCAA Division III entry but as a member of the U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association.
Even with 4,823 NCAA-countable yards, Smith remains is solid position to become the leading career rusher in Maine college football history.
That mark is held by Steve Tardif of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, who according to NCAA statistics rushed for 6,093 yards between 1996 and 1999.
Smith, who gained 1,408 yards as a freshman in 2014, 1,733 yards as a sophomore in 2015 and 1,822 yards as a junior in 2016 before adding 142 yards in Week 1 of the 2017 campaign, needs 1,270 more yards to match Tardiff’s four-year NCAA total.
Husson has nine regular-season games remaining, meaning Smith would have to average 141 yards per game to reach that mark — or less if the Eagles qualify for NCAA or ECAC postseason play for the fourth consecutive year and have an additional game or games.
The NCAA Division III career rushing record, incidentally, is held by Nate Kmic of Mount Union (Ohio), who ran for 8,074 yards between 2005 and 2008.