Union football ready for Case Western Reserve in NCAA tournament

Union coach Behrman, Case coach Debeljak know each other from their days at John Carroll
Union quarterback William Bellamy throws a pass against Westfield State.
Union quarterback William Bellamy throws a pass against Westfield State.

SCHENECTADY — Usually when you get a congratulatory text message as soon as you learn your NCAA tournament status, you reply “thank you” and move along.

This one was different for Union College football head coach Jeff Behrman.

The text came from his opponent. And there were game details to iron out.

So Behrman got right on the phone and called a familiar voice, that of Case Western Reserve head coach Greg Debeljak, who was a young assistant coach at John Carroll when Behrman came in as a freshman quarterback in the 1990s.

Union (10-0) will host Case Western Reserve (9-1) at noon Saturday in the first round of the Division III tournament at Frank Bailey Field, which will serve as a reunion of Behrman and Debeljak, but on opposite sides of the field. 

“He texted me as soon as the selection came out, and he said, ‘How ’bout that?'” Behrman said on Wednesday after practice.

“I was a very young coach. It was my first or second year as a full-time coach when Jeff was a freshman,” Debeljak said by phone on Thursday morning. “He had no ego and would do anything for the team.

“It wasn’t a surprise that he’s been successful at Union. He knows the recruiting side, and from the X-and-O side, he’s exceptional.”

The Dutchmen should enjoy all the advantages of the home game. The Spartans’ schedule included a bus departure from Cleveland at 7 a.m. Friday and a pitstop at the University of Rochester (where Case Western Reserve won its season opener 37-6) for practice and lunch before arriving in the Capital Region around 4 p.m.

The game pits a pass-oriented team, Case Western Reserve, led by sophomore quarterback Drew Saxton, against a Union team with perhaps more versatility on offense, based on the performance of running back Ike Irabor, who was named Liberty League offensive player of the year this week after amassing 1,142 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. Case Western Reserve plays in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference and is coming off its only loss of the season, a 24-21 defeat to Carnegie Mellon that ended with a missed 43-yard field goal with no time left.

“When we flicked on the tape, it was interesting to see a new conference,” Union senior linebacker George Reed said. “They’ve got some big cats up front. That’s the first thing you notice. Their schemes are nothing crazy, some stuff we’ve seen before, so we think we’ve prepared well, and we’re pretty excited.”

“I don’t think they like to throw the ball too deep,” Union defensive end Vincenzo DiCaterino said. “I think they like to get their four-, five-yard outs, crossing routes, stuff like that, but that’s what we specialize in and that’s been our strength.”

“It’s very evident how physical  [the Dutchmen] are defensively,” Debeljak said. “Then, the guys who stand out are the offensive skill guys. I know Jeff pretty well, and I expected nothing else.

“What are they [Union defense] giving you? Do they overreact? I don’t see that. They don’t give up a lot of big plays.”

The 6-foot, 185-pound Saxton threw for over 3,000 yards as a freshman and for over 2,700 this season.

Debeljak’s recruiting has gained national scope in recent years, but his roster still includes 22 players from football-rich Pennsylvania and 22 from Ohio, the home state of both head coaches. Saxton is from South Fayette, Pennsylvania, just south of Pittsburgh.

“Certainly it’s a great brand of football in Ohio and western Pennsylvania,” Behrman said. “[Saxton’s] their guy. He’s a two-year starter. He’s very poised in the pocket, he’s very accurate and knows what to do within their system to make the play. He’s as good as we’ve seen all year.”

“He came in as ready as anyone I’ve ever had,” Debeljak said. “Last year, we had five senior receivers, so they all knew the offense. This year, we’ve got one good kid who’s 6-5 [junior Colt Morgan] and a bunch of guys who never played before.

“So Drew has had to step up as a leader. He is physically gifted, has good vision and throws the ball well. He’s not the greatest runner, but he is elusive. He’s not a statue back there.”

“He’s definitely a smaller kid, he’s got a quick release and he’s a solid athlete,” Reed said. “He’s pretty mobile in the pocket, like some of the guys we’ve seen, like Joe Germinerio over there at Ithaca. Good quarterback, and they’re definitely a pass-first offense. We know that, and I think we’ll be able to combat those similar tactics like we’ve seen from teams like St. Lawrence or Ithaca.”

Saxton’s counterpart on Union’s side is junior William Bellamy, whose primary target is 6-foot-3 Andre Ross Jr.

“Yeah, I’ve been in the film room. They’re a very disciplined defense,” Bellamy said. “They do a lot of different things with their outside linebackers. They’re probably going to try to take away the run from us, which, with a running back like Ike, most teams have tried to do that. So we’re going to spread the ball out a little bit. They don’t really give up the big play, and they play together.

“I don’t know if you’d call it blitzing, but they like to add an extra hat in the box, which makes it tough on our run game.”

Irabor said he’s OK with that.

It’s certainly not anything he hasn’t seen before.

“I learned they like to stop the run,” he said. “They’re big on that. I want to say [CSW is similar to] RPI. They put seven in the box to make sure I can’t get through, and if so, they have their linebackers ready for me. Their linebackers don’t break the box all that much.”

The Dutchmen clinched their NCAA berth early, after beating Ithaca with two regular-season games still to play.

They polished off the 10-0 with convincing wins over Utica and RPI, the latter for the Dutchman Shoes trophy.

Now that they’ve come this far, they’re not just happy to be in the tournament.

“We’ve been talking about these goals since spring football,” Reed said. “First, to win the Liberty League championship, which we did early against Ithaca. And the second was to keep the Shoes, which we did, and the final one was to have an undefeated season and make the NCAA Tournament.

“And it wasn’t until we did that one that we realized, wait a second, we can make a run in the tournament. And that’s kind of a new goal we’ve created this week, to at least make a dent even if we don’t make it all the way down to Texas [for the Stagg Bowl].”

“It’s an unreal feeling,” DiCaterino said. “I can’t really describe it. But it’s been what we’ve been working toward for four years, coming off an oh-and-10 season, not kowing what to expect. I think everyone’s bought in. The season speaks for itself.”

“They understand. They’ve been waiting for this and preparing for this,” Behrman said. “It was part of the talk when we recruited these guys, is that we wanted to bring Union College football back to the NCAAs in the postseason. I think it’s been an ongoing process from the moment we were in their living rooms talking to them to come to Union, that we wanted to be in this position. They know the magnitude of it, and that’s shown in their preparation so far.”

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

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