Pioneers Stumble Late as Albany Claims NEC Championship, 31-21

WR Jo Jo Jamiel
WR Jo Jo Jamiel

Albany, NY – The Sacred Heart football team nearly played spoiler Saturday afternoon but the Albany Great Danes forced a pair of second half turnovers and eventually defeated the Pioneers, 31-21, to claim the 2011 Northeast Conference Championship. Jo Jo Jamiel (West Yarmouth, MA) scored on a fake field goal while Rich Rossi (Moosic, PA) and Sean Kessler (Huntington, NY) both secured touchdown receptions in the loss.

Sacred Heart (5-6, 3-5 NEC) took the opening kick-off right down the field behind strong running from Keshaudas Spence (). The drive appeared to have stalled out at the Great Danes three yard line, setting up what would have been a short field goal attempt for Chris Rogers (Cazenovia, NY). However, head coach Paul Gorham called for the fake field goal and Jamiel handled the snap, rushed to the right, and easily found his way into the end zone for the first points of the game.

Albany (8-3, 7-1) closed the first quarter with a long scoring drive of their own. Quarterback Dan Di Lella tied the game at 7-7 with a 3-yard strike to Justin Petersen, the first of Di Lella's four touchdown passes of the afternoon. The two sides finished the first quarter level with the visitors holding the ball for nearly ten minutes of the opening frame.

The Pioneers pushed back in front midway through the second quarter as SHU QB Tim Little (Egg Harbor Twp., NJ) connected with Rossi for the tight end's team leading six touchdown catch of 2011. Rock Tate (Lantana, FL) also played a pivotal role on the drive as the junior fell on two Sacred Heart fumbles to retain possession for the red and white.

The Great Danes immediately responded and evened the score line on the next possession. Di Lella fired a nine-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Kirchner with just under four minutes to play in the half. Kirchner finished the game with seven catches for 69 yards and a trio of touchdowns. The Pioneers mishandled the snap for a punt on the next possession to give Albany a chance to take the lead before the intermission. But the game would go into halftime deadlocked at 14-14 as the Great Danes kicker, Herb Glass, was unable to hit a 38-yard field goal against a stiff wind.

The Pioneer defense then registered a three and out following the second half kick-off. Chris Mandas (Mission Viejo, CA), who started the day as the NEC leader in tackles, recorded 14 stops and forced a fumble. However, the Albany defense came up with an interception as Zach Gallo stepped in front of a screen pass on third and long. Five plays later Di Lella found Kirchner from 14 yards out to give Albany its first lead at 21-14.

The Great Danes defense forced the SHU offense off the field quickly on its next time out. Albany appeared poised for another touchdown but the Pioneer offense refused to break and forced the home team to settle for a field goal attempt. Glass knocked through a 31-yard kick to give the Great Danes a two score advantage, 24-14.

Sacred Heart found its way back into the game as Little completed four passes on a third quarter drive that brought SHU to within three, 24-21. The final play come on a 31-yard hook up to Kessler up the right sideline. The Pioneer defense kept the momentum and forced Albany into yet another three and out. However, the Great Danes ended the ensuing Sacred Heart drive with a sack on third down.

Albany then engineered a nine-play drive that covered 50 yards to take a 31-21 edge with 9:29 to play in regulation. The next two SHU drives ended with a turnover on downs and a Randall Exantus interception, respectively.

The Pioneers still had a chance at a comeback with the clock winding down as Little found Rickey Moore Jr. () over the middle of the field and down to the Albany six yard line. However, the Great Danes jarred the ball loose and scooped up the fumble to end the Pioneer threat. Following a SHU offisides on fourth down, Albany would be able to kneel on the ball and claim the 31-21 victory and the 2011 Northeast Conference Championship.

The Great Danes and Duquesne both finished the season 7-1 in league play as co-champions but Albany defeated the Dukes earlier this season to secure the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The Pioneers finish the season in the middle of the Northeast Conference standings after being tabbed to finish eighth in the NEC Preseason Coaches' Poll. Sacred Heart defeated two Ivy League programs in 2011 and closed the year with the NEC's top ranked passing attack.