SCHENECTADY — The year before Daniel Gioiso arrived on campus to join the Union College football team, the Dutchmen went 3-7, capping a stretch of four straight losing seasons with a combined record of 8-32.
In Gioiso’s first three years on campus, Union football sparked a remarkable turnaround — 7-4 in 2017, 7-2 in 2018 and 11-1 with a trip to the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs in 2019 — and seemed to be on the precipice of taking an even greater step forward in 2020.
Except, that 2020 season never happened, canceled due to restrictions brought on by the novel coronavirus.
The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to all of its athletes to make up for the swathe of cancellations during the 2020-21 academic year, leaving Gioiso and many of his teammates who were due to graduate this past May with a choice.
They could leave school on schedule and start their post-college lives — or maybe entertain a chance to transfer schools and play elsewhere — or stick it out at Union and return in 2021.
The choice, Gioiso said, wasn’t really a choice at all.
“This was our dream to do this, here at this school,” the senior defensive lineman said during the team’s media day last week. “We weren’t going to leave anything on the table. No regrets.”
For fifth-year players like Gioiso, quarterback Will Bellamy, linebacker Colin Lama and offensive tackle Tim Driscoll, as well as stars like running back Ike Irabor and wide receiver Andre Ross Jr. who sat out as underclassmen in 2020, Saturday will put an end to nearly 650 days of waiting.
Union is set to kick off its 2021 season at 1 p.m. against Morrisville State on home turf at Frank Bailey Field, with the Dutchmen eager to put the long layoff behind them and build on 2019’s Liberty League title-winning campaign.
The Dutchmen will do that with a roster that’s about 50% returning players from 2019, with the remaining half consisting of a freshman and sophomore class that have never seen the field in a college football game.
“With our team, all new guys, new people coming in this year, we’re going to work hard to strive to be the best team we can be,” said Irabor, the 2019 Liberty League Offensive Player of the Year. “We’ll see if we can get back to where we were last year, but we’re working every day — one day at a time, one game at a time.”
“We basically have two freshman classes,” said Driscoll, a preseason All-American selection at left tackle. “Getting everybody up to speed, we’re continuing to be challenged with that and we’re continuing to work through that.”
Union opens head coach Jeff Behrman’s fifth season ranked 15th in the AFCA Division III Coaches’ Poll, and for good reason.
The Dutchmen return one of Division III’s best trios of quarterback, running back and receiver. Bellamy threw for 2,631 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2019, Irabor is coming off a season where he rushed for 1,287 yards and 16 scores, and Ross averaged more than 21 yards per reception, putting up 1,022 receiving yards while reaching the end zone on 12 of his 48 catches.
Defensively, Union returns its leading tackler in Lama (95 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss) and its top pass rusher in Gioiso (9 sacks).
Knowing that potential, Lama said, is why he and fellow captains Bellamy and Gioiso only needed a brief conversation last school year before they determined as a group they’d be back in 2021.
“Hell yeah,” Lama said. “We’re all-in.”
While those who missed out on 2020 described the lost season as “frustrating” and “discouraging,” Driscoll said there’s nothing useful about focusing on that anymore as the Dutchmen embark on their 2021 journey.
“We’re trying to leave the past in the past, and just focus on the present,” Driscoll said. “We’re all about the grind that we have right now, working through this summer and focusing on Morrisville State. That’s our focus. We’re locked in on improving each day we’re out here.”