By Bill Burt
---- — The only thing more eventful than the four-hour bus ride home following Merrimack College’s stunning, 42-41, win over Div. 1 Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y. last Friday night was the seven-hour bus ride to the New York City borough on Thursday night.
“We had problems with one of the buses before we left, which got us going a little later than we expected,” said Merrimack head coach Dan Curran, who is now 1-0 after his debut after four years as an assistant.
“And then we had problems with a bus heading down and had to pull over at rest area on the way down,” said Curran. “It wasn’t what we hoped for. We got there about (three hours) later than we planned. But honestly, nobody complained. That’s the way this team is. We don’t worry about things out of our control.”
Friday’s opening night win was the biggest in Merrimack’s 17-year history in Div. 2 and was huge on several levels. Wagner was coming off a season in which it made the Div. 1-AA playoffs and had not only won its opener against Georgetown (28-21) the week before, but was the favorite to repeat as Northeast Conference champs.
The Friday night tilt was Wagner’s first home game with permanent lights, meaning nearly 3,000 fans were in attendance. Lest we forget that Wagner’s top running back (Dominique Williams) and kicker (David Lopez) will probably be drafted or invited to NFL camps next summer.
“This is a very, very good football team,” said Curran. “Last year, they beat Colgate and had Eastern Washington on the ropes. As we saw, they had a lot of depth and they wore us down a bit, which is what happens when you face a team from a higher division. But we never let up and showed a lot of resiliency.”
Merrimack saw a 28-10 lead late in the first half disappear, with Wagner scoring 24 straight points. Merrimack, though, got the lead, 35-34, in the fourth quarter before Wagner got it back, 41-35, with 5:06 remaining in the game.
Merrimack botched the return, starting on its own 4-yard line, needing 96 yards for the win. Merrimack got all of those yards on 15 plays — Clancy was 8 for 9, 77 yards — which included a huge 32-yard run by Armond McRae on 3rd-and-4 on the Warriors’ 10-yard line.
The final play was a 3-yard pass from Clancy to Shane Ferguson with 30 seconds left to tie the score at 41-41. Nick Zwaan, who was 6 for 6 on extra points, added the game-winner.
Merrimack’s defense ended the game with a sack by Josh Hill, forcing a fumble, which was recovered by Billerica’s Justin Hood.
Curran admits, after seeing his team up close and personal the last month or so, he wasn’t shocked by the result.
“We have a passionate group of players,” said Curran. “I’ve been around a lot of teams at all levels and this group has that special quality. Just like the bus ride down there, and all of the problems we had, our attitude is great. Our players focus on what they can control. And that’s doing their job.”
The irony in all of this. As incredible as Merrimack’s accomplishment was last Friday. on Saturday they travel to Springfield, Mass. to play AIC, the preseason favorites to win the Northeast-10 this fall.
“We are going to have to hop on a bus again, as the underdogs, playing another great program,” said Curran. “The win over Wagner was incredible. And there was a ton of excitement on the bus coming home. But we have a tough foe ahead of us. This is a very big game for our program.”
Wagner coach impressed Wagner College coach Walt Hamline said this about Merrimack to the Staten Island Live after the game: "We gave them opportunities to do some good things and they converted. It's a credit to them. They made more plays than we did. (Clancy) had a heckuva day passing the football. We were obviously exposed at some things and it showed."