SCHENECTADY – Although Union College’s comeback bid fell short in the inaugural New York Bowl, the Dutchmen’s belief in themselves as a competitive, revitalized football program was evident from the opening kick to the final play.
The game’s outcome was the same as many from the team’s dismal recent past seasons. But it’s clear Union turned a significant corner this season in building the program back up to respectability, then perhaps more.
State University at Cortland held off the Dutchmen 35-28 Saturday on Frank Bailey Field, as senior quarterback Steven Ferreira tossed four touchdown passes, including a pair to junior wideout Nick Anderson. Gritty Union outgained the Red Dragons 440-390, but the Dutchmen capitalized on only 3 of 7 opportunities in the red zone, and Cortland got big break on an unusual play, scoring on a fumble recovery in the end zone after Union blocked the Red Dragons’ field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter.
Union dug itself a 28-7 hole by intermission, but the Dutchmen kept fighting back, a sure sign that the change in culture second-year head coach Jeff Behrman has been working on since he arrived for the 2016 season.
Union was 0-10 in 2015, and the Dutchmen were 3-7 a year ago. Although 7-4 Union lost its final three games of the season, two of those losses were by a touchdown or less.
“I’m proud of them,” Behrman said. “I give all the credit to the players. They’re the ones who have to perform and come to practice every day. They wanted a chance to change the culture, and they did it.
“I also give a ton of credit to the seniors. They led and directed everything we did this season.”
Behrman said there was no magic formula for the Dutchmen’s surprising success this season.
“I think we, as coaches, set high expectations for them. We demanded that they work for excellence, and we also demanded that those expectations be met. They answered the call,” Behrman said. ‘We have a long way to go, and we will get a lot better. Our players took it and ran with it all season.”
Behrman was asked if there were three important keys to the 2017 turnaround for the Garnet. “No. 1, they acted and played like a family,” he said. “No. 2, they trusted each other. And No. 3, they committed to each other and to the process of changing.”
Two Union seniors playing in their final career games put up customary solid performances against the Red Dragons. Running back Connor Kinzelmann, from Columbia High School, scored Union’s first touchdown on a 21-yard run and added 101 rushing yards. Linebacker Jake Lombardo, a fellow captain, recorded a team-high 11 tackles and recovered a fumble that helped set up a Union touchdown.
“Our mentality this whole season is never be satisfied, and it’s hard being satisfied closing the season with three straight losses,” Lombardo said. “I know what we did this season is a big stepping stone for the next couple of seasons. We have guys on this team, especially the seniors, who have stuck through this and really helped turn this season around.”
Kinzelmann, Union’s top rusher, said the team’s mental approach was more important than the Xs and Os.
“Just believing and having faith in the coaching staff was the key,” he said. ‘Believing in ourselves and believing we can win every game is something that happened this year. The coaches believed in us, and they preached every day to come out and do your job. We believed in the process. I owe everything we’ve done to all the guys, even the younger ones who bought into everything from the start.
“All it takes is a new mentality, and I think that bodes very well for future Union teams.”
Cortland 14 14 0 7 – 35
Union 7 0 7 14 – 28
U – Kinzelmann 21 run (Schaible kick).
SC – Anderson 20 pass from Ferreira (Holscher kick).
SC – Davis 22 pass from Ferreira (Holscher kick).
SC – Stegemann 24 pass from Ferreira (Holscher kick).
SC – Anderson 27 pass from Ferreira (Holscher kick).
U – Beal 20 pass from Cascione (Schaible kick).
SC – Smith 4 fumble recovery after blocked FG (Holscher kick).
U – Cascione 4 run (Schaible kick).