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Wagner College knocking on NCAA's door
Wagner College football coach Walt Hameline is on the verge of his first Northeast Conference crown.
The team is tantalizingly close to the school’s first Northeast Conference championship and its first NCAA playoff berth since the glory days at the Division III level.
Wagner’s six-game winning streak and shocking 30-0 shellacking of 18th-ranked Albany last weekend put the Seahawks on the threshold of gaining the NEC’s automatic bid to the 20-team Football Championship Subdivision (formerly NCAA I-AA) playoff tournament.
“We’re focusing on getting ready for Holy Cross,” said head coach Walt Hameline of Saturday’s non-conference game at Grymes Hill, “but you’d be naive not to think that the kids aren’t checking everything out on their own.”
What they’ll find is a world full of schools like North Dakota State and Georgia Southern and Montana State — and a likely road game against a Top 10 caliber team when four opening-round games are played on Nov. 24.
Oh, and did we mention that Wagner needs only to defeat visiting Duquesne in the Nov. 17 regular-season finale to secure the bid? Or that Duquesne can make the road even quicker with a home victory over Albany this Saturday?
Wagner (6-1) and Albany (5-1) are the last NEC teams standing in the race and the Great Danes need to beat Duquesne and Central Connecticut State and have Duquesne beat the Seahawks.
Wagner could be celebrating a championship this weekend at home while earnestly following the proceedings from Pittsburgh and rooting for the Dukes.
It’s the third season that the NEC enters as an automatic qualifier. Robert Morris traveled to North Dakota State in 2010, leading 7-6 at halftime and trailing 20-17 early in the fourth quarter before the Bison exploded late for a 42-17 victory. North Dakota State won the national title in 2011.
Last season, Albany visited Stony Brook for a first-round game and was driving for the go-ahead score when a late interception thwarted the upset bid in a 31-28 loss.
The 20-team national field has 10 automatic qualifiers and 10 at-large bids in the final season before expanding to a 24-team format in 2013. A selection committee determines the top 12 seeds and adds the four first-round winners to the quarterfinal round of 16.
“It’s the NCAA’s only Division I football playoff championship,” noted Ralph Ventre, the NEC’s director of communications and social media.
Ventre said there’s always plenty of speculation about the NEC qualifier’s potential opponent, but nobody’s clued in until the NCAA’s Nov. 19 selection show airs on ESPN.
“They do try to limit travel as much as they possibly can,” said Ventre. “But we had no idea that Robert Morris was going to North Dakota State or that Albany was going to Stony Brook until listening to the show, like everybody else.
“I do know that both (NEC) teams came home saying what a tremendous experience it was.”
This week’s The Sports Network national Top 25 poll lists the following eastern schools: No. 6 Stony Brook, No. 8 Lehigh, No. 10 New Hampshire, No. 21 Villanova and No. 25 Harvard.
Stony Brook, Lehigh and New Hampshire might all be in line for first-round byes, while Harvard won’t be in the field because the Ivy League doesn’t send its champion to the playoffs.
It’s practically a certainty that Wagner would hit the road, although Ventre said the NEC does submit a bid to be the host site for a first-round game. The NCAA requires roughly a $30,000 guarantee from the conference of the host school, but the issue is likely a non-starter because of Hameline Field’s smallish 3,300-seat capacity.
And the Seahawks can expect a stiff challenge.
The FCS ranks are known to come up with major upsets from time to time.
Appalachian State’s 34-32 victory over Michigan at the famed Big House in the 2007 season opener stands alone at the top of the list, but what about James Madison’s 21-16 stunner at 13th-ranked Virginia Tech early in the 2010 campaign?
“The bottom line is that it’s a lot of fun for whoever wins the NEC,” said Ventre. “It’s really a once in a lifetime shot and our teams have been very competitive.”
By Jim Waggoner, Staten Island Advance