by Kent Cherrington, SID
PLYMOUTH, N.H. – A dominating defense, an explosive but inconsistent offense, and exciting and unpredictable special teams were the characteristics of the 1997 Plymouth State College football team, one that continued the tradition of being one of the premier Division III programs in New England.
The Panthers showed improvement on and off the field in the second season under head coach Mike Kemp. The regular season record jumped from 5-4 in 1996 to 7-3 this year, the Freedom Football Conference mark improved from 3-3 to 4-2, and PSC returned to the post-season with a record-ninth ECAC appearance. But just as important, the squad blended into one unit on and off the field, which Kemp and the players echo was a major contributor to the success of this year’s squad.
“The guys made the commitment back in March, that they were willing to pay the price,” said Kemp. “Led by senior captains Brian Arakelian (Hampton, NH) and Joe Attubato (Saugus, MA), the upperclassmen turned into great leaders and took on the challenge. From the first day in fall camp, we were together as a team. The players and coaches knew what to expect from each other, and we were able to work together and produce. That’s what makes this season so rewarding.”
After opening the season with a 6-1 record, including a five-game winning streak and a 4-0 conference mark, the Panthers were contending for a FFC crown and an NCAA berth heading into November. But the team stumbled in two of the last three games, hit by bad weather and a terrible case of the turnover blues. An invitation to the ECAC Northwest Championship game was the reward for the 7-3 regular season, but even that went awry when Buffalo State came from behind late in the game to steal a 21-17 victory.
“We didn’t want the year to end the way the regular season ended, with a loss at WPI,” said Kemp. “And the guys played very well in the ECAC game. I’m proud of how they played after the tough loss the week before. But in the game of football, these things (Buffalo State comeback) can happen, and you have to deal with them.”
The 1997 unit continued the Panther tradition of having a superb defense. The “Green Wall” was the top defense in the FFC and among the national leaders, led by an All-American linebacker, an All-East Region cornerback and linebacker, an All-New England tackle, and a total of five All-Conference defenders.
The anchor of the defense was senior linebacker Dave Gibson (Middletown, RI), who earned All-America honors after making 106 tackles. He led the team in tackles and earned All-New England honors for the third straight year. Fellow linebackers Rocky Criscone (Burnt Hills, NY) and Nathan Busa (Newton, MA) also combined for more than 100 tackles, with Criscone winning a host of post-season honors. The defensive line was solid, with All-New England tackle Joe Attubato (Saugus, MA), All-FFC tackle Bill Lawrence (Dover, NH) and solid ends Kevin Hebert (Somersworth, NH) and Cyril Allison (Mattapan, MA). The defensive backfield held its own, picking off 17 passes, led by All-New England corner Marc Turcotte (South Berwick, ME), who led the league with six interceptions. John McLaughlin (East Bridgewater, MA) and Colt Meredith (Saugus, MA) each picked off two, and Chris Yacullo (White River Junction, VT) and Steve Henry (Jordan, NY) got one apiece.
The success of the offense rested on the performance of the offensive line, and the starting five came through. Seniors Brian Arakelian (Hampton, NH) and Matt Horan (Simsbury, CT) got all the post-season honors, but got strong support from juniors Scott Prue (Bradford, MA), and Rob Mason (Madison, CT), and sophomore center Chris Belmont (Campton, NH).
It was the linemen and fullback Bryan Sinatro (West Hartford, CT) who had a great deal to do with senior tailback Jose Raymond (Wakefield, MA) leading the Freedom Conference in rushing, but Raymond was an amazing story all by himself. After spending 1996 as a reserve on the junior varsity, and entering the season third on the depth chart, the 5’4″, 183-pound Raymond not only worked his way into the starting line-up, but onto the All-Conference First Team, rushing for over 900 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had three one-hundred-yard rushing games, and scored at least one TD in nine of the 10 games.
When Raymond wasn’t rushing, senior QB Josh Norse (Brattleboro, VT) was throwing. Norse completed 130 of 265 passes for 1724 yards and 12 touchdowns, but was hurt by 15 interceptions. In fact, the entire offense was hurt by turnovers, giving up the football 32 times in 10 games.
Norse had plenty of targets to throw to. The top three receivers, who are all expected back in ’98, were wideouts – Charlie Schubert (Manchester, NH), Brent Bardellini (Milford, MA) and Joel Carey (South Pomfret, VT), with Schubert and Bardellini winning All-Conference honors. Norse also threw to both of his tight ends – Chris Beaule (Manchester, NH) and John Andrewes (Gloucester, MA), and receivers coming out of the backfield – Sinatro, Raymond, Matt Botz (West Islip, NY) and Bydrow Williams (Ledyard, CT).
PSC had an exciting special teams unit, one that wasn’t afraid of a fake punt here or an unexpected onside kick there. In fact, the Panthers opened the game a couple of times with a successful onside kick. Sophomore punt returner Brent Bardellini (Milford, MA) returned two punts for touchdowns, and senior Paul D’Ascoli (Somers, NY) wrapped up an outstanding career with his fourth straight All-Conference and second straight All-New England selections.
All in all, PSC completed its 28th season of varsity football in 1997 as still the winningest Division III program in the nation, with an all-time winning percentage of .704 (W-186, L-76, T-7).
“As I said, we challenged our players last March to prepare to win, and they accepted it,” said Kemp. “We’re issuing the same challenge now to the returnees. We expect to be back next season, and every season, to challenge for a conference championship and a berth in the NCAA play-offs.”