RPI football has more than Shoes on the line in battle with Union

Engineers could get home field for the NCAA postseason, but Union wants the Dutchman Shoes Trophy back
RPI coach Ralph Insernia, left, and Union's Jeff Behrman with the Dutchman Shoes Trophy.
RPI coach Ralph Insernia, left, and Union's Jeff Behrman with the Dutchman Shoes Trophy.

TROY — There is plenty of extra incentive for RPI.

There is significantly less extra incentive for the Union Dutchmen, but don’t try to tell them that.

The Engineers trotted out the Dutchman Shoes Trophy at a well-attended press conference on Wednesday in the East Campus Athletic Village.

The trophy is a coveted piece of hardware that goes back 69 years and is associated with a football rivalry that goes back way further. Like, to 1886.

The schools will play each other at RPI at noon Saturday, with the Dutchmen (6-2) trying to get the Dutchman Shoes back for the first time since 2012.

While the Engineers will be trying to keep it, they also have much more on the line, since a victory likely would keep RPI at home for the first round of the NCAA playoffs the following Saturday. RPI (8-0) is shooting for outright possession of the Liberty League championship as well as just the third undefeated, untied season in program history.

The Dutchmen just want their Shoes back.

“I had a pretty good game against them as a sophomore, but I only care about winning and losing, so that’s kind of a rough memory,” Union senior outside linebacker Jack Reilly said. “Hopefully on Saturday, we can have a different one.”

The Engineers are ranked No. 14 in the country in Division III and are trying to avoid having to share the Liberty League title with Ithaca with a loss to Union.

RPI’s other undefeated, untied seasons came in 1999 (9-0) and 2001 (8-0), and the Engineers were 7-0-3 in 1911.

They’re guaranteed a spot in the NCAA postseason, but securing a home game would make that development even sweeter. With that in mind, RPI head coach Ralph Insernia is putting even more emphasis on the Shoes game than there typically would be.

“I asked our team ‘Who are we playing next week [Nov. 17]? Are we playing at home? Are we playing on the road? Who are we likely to play?'” he said. “Alright, we’ve got smart guys, and they couldn’t answer any of those questions.

“So, the only thing we can do is take care of this one. We’re treating this game as basically the first round of our playoffs, because if you win, you have a chance to have a home game and all that stuff.”

The backdrop to RPI’s playoff aspirations is a series with some murky record-keeping in its early stages.

The all-time wins, losses and ties are either 80-31-4 in favor of Union (if you believe RPI) or 81-30-4 (if you believe Union). They still don’t agree on who won the inaugural game, and an 1888 game either exists or doesn’t. The ghosts of 1901 also continue to squabble, with Union having won twice that year (Union’s position) or just once (RPI’s).

Union third-year head coach Jeff Behrman played at John Carroll University in Ohio, where “the crosstown rival was Baldwin-Wallace, and the league rival was Mount Union,” he said.

“But it’s nothing like this game, it really wasn’t. I mean, we didn’t have press conferences with those games. There were trophies, but nothing like the history of this, which is pretty fascinating.”

“I came with my dad once,” said RPI sophomore quarterback George Marinopoulos, a Guilderland High graduate. “It was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. So we knew what the program was about, but the Shoes game was a little bit different. You could just see the energy between the two teams.”

This year’s game is a collision of teams that each have enjoyed the winning side of some blowouts.

That, of course, means that both teams have been terrific on both sides of the ball, but it doesn’t necessarily help to predict how Saturday’s game will play out.

“They’re really stout on the defensive line and as good as any we’ve played,” Insernia said. “Their secondary is as advertised, they run to the football, they cover. You see 11 guys running sideline to sideline, and they hit and finish. In a strange way, it’s a fun defense to watch, if you’re not playing against them.

“It could go either way. It could be a defensive slugfest, it could be anything. We don’t know how that’s going to play out, but you”ve got to be ready for it all.”

“I think what you’re going to see are two very good defenses,” Behrman said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes. Both offense are very capable, but when you look at RPI, they definitely have the ability to score a lot of points. They have a lot of playmakers on offense and a big, strong offensive line that is probably the best ‘O’ line in the league right now. And they just do a great job of getting the ball to guys who are going to stretch the field for them and move the chains.”

Then there’s the emotion factor of a big rivalry game, which was won by RPI 20-14 last year.

Once the ball is kicked off, both coaches want their players to channel that in a positive way without getting caught up in who the opponent is and what a win would mean.

“Sounds like you’ve been in our team meeting,” Insernia said. “You don’t want to get overcome by it. Last year, with everything on the line, the Shoes game, the win-and-you’re in, I think our guys maybe can play a little bit  free-er this year knowing that we’re going to the playoffs and now just play for the Shoes, just play for each other.”

“I’m sure the press and the TV will have us as the underdog, but the eight games before this don’t really matter,” Reilly said. “I’m sure our guys will be fired up and ready to play.”

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

Categories: College Sports, Sports

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