NORTHFIELD, Vt. – The laptops were out, the coffee was brewing and the projector was humming in the Norwich University football conference room early Monday morning. Eight coaches were huddled around a conference table, preparing for the 121st season of Cadets football and its first non-conference game of the year this Saturday.
Head Coach Mark Murnyack and his seven assistant coaches are preparing their charges for play in the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC), a new football league that will officially open versus Coast Guard on Saturday, Sept. 23 at 2 p.m. in the rekindled "Battle for the Mug" at Sabine Field.
Following the season-opener at Morrisville State College on Saturday, Sept. 2, Norwich will compete for three trophies in 2017. In addition to the "Battle for the Mug", the Cadets will battle Castleton for the "Maple Sap Bucket" on Sept. 16. The newest trophy, the Hoffman Cup, will be awarded to the winner of the Saint Lawrence/Norwich contest on Sept. 9.
NEWMAC play will commence on Sept. 23. The new league will afford the Cadets an opportunity to restart rivalries against several schools from the Freedom Football Conference – Norwich was a founding member in 1992 and competed in the FFC until its disbandment in 2003, playing current NEWMAC members Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, WPI and Springfield on a regular basis.
"As a program, we're always looking to take that next step and the new conference gives us the opportunity to do that," said Murnyack. "The new conference is awesome for our fans, our alumni and I truly feel that it's going to be one of the premier academic NCAA Division III conference in the league.
"The national footprint of the conference, the service academies, the nationwide name recognition, you can't help but get excited when looking at these rekindled rivalries. I was here when we played in the FFC – I know what kinds of battles those games were. Personally, it's going to be fun to go back into those settings and measure ourselves."
Fast forwarding to the first game of the 2017 season, a roster of 110 student-athletes will hit the field for Norwich, led by team captains Austin Roberts (East Bridgewater, Mass.) and Peter Lalime (Kensington, N.H.). The Cadets will look to replace a large and talented senior class that included seven ECFC All-Conference players, including the league's Special Teams Player of the Year, Wesley Medeiros '17. Norwich will return Roberts, a First Team Defense selection, and sophomore Brasean Stewart (Bronx, N.Y.), one of only two freshmen to earn First or Second Team All-Conference plaudits in 2016.
"We have holes to fill from graduation, but I feel that we've done a good job as a program in terms of developing players, but now they have to step up," said Murnyack. "A lot of sophomores, juniors and, in some cases, seniors are going to be starters for the first time – they've been in the program and now they're going to get that chance to step up and contribute."
Norwich deployed two quarterbacks during the 2016 season and returns both of them, including seniors Philippe Bazinet (Otterburn Park, Quebec, Canada) and Nolan Aurelia (Stratford, Conn.). Bazinet fired six touchdowns while Aurelia, who will also be utilized as a wide receiver in 2017, added one. The Cadets will look to reduce the amount of interceptions after launching 16 wayward passes a year ago.
The second-ranked rushing team in the ECFC with exactly 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns, Norwich has lost its top two rushing weapons from a year ago and will look to sophomore Aaron Conner (Daytona Beach, Fla.) to carry the load. Conner burst onto the scene, posting two touchdowns and 98 yards against Castleton in the season finale. Norwich also returns Bazinet, who netted 389 yards and ran for three touchdowns from the quarterback position.
The receiving corps for Norwich also took a hit due to graduation as the top three departing receivers combined for five touchdowns and combined for 749 yards. As mentioned earlier, the punting and kicking games will look to rebound after losing Medeiros, who set the program record for made field goals in a career (37).
Rising sophomore Connor Bourque (Goffstown, N.H.) returned 10 kicks and nine punts for Norwich last season, earning Honorable Mention All-Conference distinction and will once again serve as a key cog in the Cadets' special teams strategy.
Roberts and Stewart will lead a Norwich defensive unit that was extremely impressive during the 2016 season, limiting opponents to only 129.2 rushing yards per game (third in the ECFC). Sophomore defensive back Michael Corinna (Milford, Mass.) and senior defensive lineman Angelo Cofield (Lithonia, Ga.) will bolster the Norwich defense.
Preseason camp wrapped up last week and with six days to go before the season-opener at Morrisville State, the coaching staff is ready to see the hard work by all pay off.
"This is the chance that [the coaches and I] get to do what we love, and that's teach, educate and mentor these kids on the field. We get to spend a lot of time with them, see them develop – this time of year is always exciting for us," said Murnyack. "Every year, it's a new team. You miss the guys from years past, but you bring in new leaders, essentially starting from scratch."
"I couldn't be happier with the execution and the effort we've received from our players throughout camp," concluded Murnyack. "We've had 23 seniors graduate – there are a lot of unknowns and question marks. This team has done nothing but prove to me that they're going to be disciplined and hard-working, but I am definitely excited to get underway and measure where we are at."