When the Husson University football team walked off the field at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Nov. 16, 2019, little did the Eagles know it would be 658 days before they would play another game.
Emotions are high as coach Nat Clark’s club is set to return to the gridiron Saturday for a 1 p.m. season-opening kickoff against UMass Dartmouth at the Winkin Complex in Bangor.
“The kids have waited a long time for the chance to play a ballgame,” Clark said. “There’s just so much work that goes into football, and we finally get to have a payday here on Saturday. We want to win, but just to play the football game will be a tremendous accomplishment.”
Fans will be admitted free of charge to the Eagles’ first opening game at home since 2017, and they’ll see a Husson team poised to make the most of the work the players and coaches done in anonymity during the last 21 months due the COVID-19 pandemic in hopes of one day getting the chance to play again.
“Our roster reflects one thing, we have a lot of seniors and we have several fifth-year guys who obviously love the game,” Clark said. “To come back at our level, Division III non-scholarship, and play with a year off and just practicing with 66 practices and no games tells me just how much they love football.”
The Husson roster also boasts plenty of inexperience, from juniors who generally played little as freshmen and then not at all as sophomores, to sophomores who didn’t play as freshmen, and to first-years making the transition from high school football.
“We’ve got a nice group of freshmen but in between that and our veterans we’ve got a lot of inexperience like everybody else because we haven’t played in two years,” Clark said.
Husson, 4-6 in 2019 including 4-3 in its first year of Commonwealth Coast Conference play, will have a new quarterback in 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore Nic Visser, who joined the program last spring after transferring from Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California.
Among Visser’s top passing targets will be a pair of 2019 All-CCC honorees in senior wide receiver Tyler Halls of Lisbon and senior tight end Aidan Hogan.
Halls led the Eagles in receptions (71), receiving yards (1,057) and touchdown catches two years ago while Hogan made 39 catches for 446 yards and nine touchdowns.
Junior Garrett Poussard of Lewiston and senior Jordan Marcano will lead the Eagles’ ground game while All-CCC senior Jacob Cameron and junior Juwan Moore of Morse High School in Bath will anchor the run blocking and pass protection at the line of scrimmage.
Clark also is encouraged by a Husson defense featuring two All-CCC veterans, senior defensive lineman Frank Curran of Portland and senior linebacker Kaleb Caron of West Gardiner.
Other key defenders are senior lineman Josh Hoy, senior linebacker Derek Barden, junior lineman David Redmond of Westbrook and sophomore linebacker Tucker Buzzell of Lovell.
Junior Shawn Noel Jr., an all-conference kick return specialist in 2019, has moved to cornerback after leading the Eagles in rushing two years ago.
“We’ve got seven or eight guys on defense who have played a lot of football and that excites us,” Clark said. “I think we’re going to be improved on defense but we’ll find out [Saturday]. UMass Dartmouth has a tremendous quarterback, so we’ll have to stop him and their receivers but our kids seem really confident right now.”
The game against UMass Dartmouth (7-3 in 2019) and quarterback Stephen Gacioch (2,221 passing yards and 20 TDs in 2019) will kick off a typically rigorous nonconference schedule for Husson, though three of those four games will be played at home.
The Eagles will visit Plymouth (New Hampshire) State next Saturday, then host 2019 East Collegiate Football Conference champion Dean College on Friday, Sept. 17, and perennial regional power Springfield College for homecoming on Saturday, Sept. 25.
The Commonwealth Coast Conference football ranks have reduced to seven teams this fall with the closing of Becker College. The Eagles will host Curry College in its CCC opener on Oct. 9.
Husson was picked to finish fourth in the CCC preseason coaches poll, trailing Western New England, Endicott College and Nichols College.
“We’re down to a six-game league and there’s really no room for error,” Clark said. “Western New England and Endicott are the top group right now and everybody else is fighting to get there,” Clark said.