The hockey school, it seems, is diversifying.
It’s a trend that’s been going on for several years. Baseball has been to the D-III World Series a few times now. Women’s basketball hosted an NCAA tournament game a few years back. Men’s lacrosse went all the way not too long ago.
This fall, however, the sport to watch in Troy was RPI football—the 2003 season was a classic, with a postseason run that vaulted Rensselaer into the national spotlight.
Rensselaer’s 8-1 regular season, for the most part, was not too much of a surprise. There are no sure things in football, and few of the games could be considered easy wins, but if the odds makers in Vegas handicapped D-III football each week, it’s a safe bet that the Engineers would have been giving points in every regular season game.
The key point here, as highlighted by Head Coach Joe King in a postseason interview, was that there were no major injuries. Key players did go down at times, but for the most part the Engineers got through the season unscathed, a tribute to Anthony Ortolano and the rest of the RPI training staff.
A case can be made that RPI’s playoff run really began in their last game of the regular season, a 43-25 home loss to Hobart. Several times during the year, the Engineers posted a shoddy first half and then cranked up the offense in the second half to win the game handily. By holding Rensselaer to field goals instead of touchdowns on four separate occasions and then exploding for 28 fourth-quarter points, the Statesmen wrenched the conference title from the Engineers’ grasp—in future years, with the UCAA having an automatic bid to the national tournament, such a loss would likely be season-ending.
This year, however, the loss served as a wake-up call. “Even though you hate to have a loss,” said King, “it gets you back to what wins football games.”
Several other playoff contenders also lost their final games, giving RPI the break it needed to return to the NCAA tournament as the fifth seed in the East bracket. That luck extended to granting the Engineers a pair of home games during their run.
RPI’s postseason was a study in the various types of weather in which football can be played, but neither wind, nor snow, nor bright sunshine kept the Engineers from vaulting onto the national stage. Put another way by King after one game, “We’ve got special kids that can perform under the most ridiculous of conditions.”
For round one, warm, sunny weather was the order of the day. The Engineers were playing in Troy because their fourth-seeded opponents, the Curry College Colonels, were unable to host. The first half of the game looked like a repeat of Hobart, at least on offense—Rensselaer picked up only a pair of field goals. Defensively, the Engineers had problems shutting down Curry runner Raphael Zammit, but allowed only a single touchdown, and a blocked extra-point left the score tied at six.
They say that your playmakers have to step up in the postseason. The two biggest this year for RPI were quarterback Dan Cole and receiver Flynn Cochran, and they turned the second half of the Curry game into “The Cole-to-Cochran Show.” When the show was over, Cochran had a school-record 15 catches, 216 yards, and three touchdowns, and the Engineers were headed to Springfield to take on the top seed in the bracket.
For the first time all year, the Engineers were the underdogs. The Pride had the top rushing attack in D-III and had not trailed in the second half of any game this season. The weather was also against RPI, as rain and heavy wind would likely hamper RPI’s prolific passing game.
Springfield did in fact have an excellent day running the ball. Their offense netted 441 yards without completing a single pass, and they put the ball in the end zone four times.
The Pride’s only problem was that someone forgot to tell Cole that bad weather and passing didn’t mix. Mike Defilippi got RPI the ball early by recovering a Springfield fumble on the Pride’s 31-yard line. Four plays later, Cole connected on a 20-yard touchdown to Jon Branche. Three very wet hours later, Cole had completed 25 more passes for 348 yards and five touchdowns, as the Engineers came from behind twice to upset the Pride, 40-34.
Rensselaer caught its next break when sixth-seeded Ithaca upset Montclair State to advance to the bracket final. Ithaca’s lower seed meant that ’86 Field would see its biggest game ever. The weather then ensured that the game would go down as one of the most memorable sporting events in Capital Region history.
The forecasts for December 6 all called for snow and for once, they were dead-on accurate. A conference call that morning among officials at both schools and the NCAA determined that the game would go on, and the grounds crew did an amazing job clearing a foot of snow off the field before the game began.
Almost before the words “Snow Bowl” were uttered in the press box, RPI was on the board. On the third play from scrimmage, Cole found Pat Hughes through swirling snow for a 59-yard touchdown. The next drive, Jon Branche ran the same post route, with the same result, and the Engineers had a 14-point lead.
The weather continually worsened throughout the game, but both offenses doggedly stuck to their game plan. Ithaca drove to the RPI 4-yard line early in the second quarter, but a big stand by the Engineer defense held them to a field goal. The Bombers finally cracked the end zone on the first drive of the second half, again with the passing attack, to cut the Engineer lead to 14-9.
Rensselaer drove right back, pounding the ball through several inches of snow to the Ithaca 16, from where Cole found Branche in the back of the end zone to give RPI a 12-point cushion. A later Engineer field goal attempt was blocked, so a Bomber touchdown with under four minutes remaining in the game put them within striking distance. RPI recovered the on-side kick, but Cole was intercepted two plays later, giving Ithaca new life.
The Bombers had an incompletion, and then an eight-yard pass which brought up third-and-two. Defensive mainstay Ramses Jimenez delivered the biggest sack of his career, and Grant Cochran picked off Ithaca’s final pass to close the book on the “Snow Bowl.” For the first time, RPI’s football Engineers would be flying to a game.
The semifinal match against St. John’s of Minnesota featured plenty of cold, but the Engineers shrugged it off—after the previous two weeks, it wasn’t a factor. RPI played a tough first half, but the eventual national champions made several big plays and ran away with it, 38-10.
Even with its anticlimactic ending, there can be no doubt that 2003 was the best season in RPI football history. The Engineers set more than 50 individual and team records and were ranked in the top 10 nationwide in all three major D-III polls. The ECAC also awarded Rensselaer the D-III Lambert Trophy, given to the best of the 74 teams in the northeastern part of the country.
With 2003 over, thoughts turn to next season. Certainly, the team will have a new look. Cole and Cochran, who respectively hold nearly all of the Institute’s passing and receiving records, will be graduating. Also at the end of their college careers are Hughes, Defilippi, linebackers Chris Pierz and Greg Giadone, defensive back Jai Echols, kickers Matt Verenini and Ed Garcia, and offensive linemen Alex Keel, Ray Noonan, and Anthony Casale.
The coaching staff is also a bit behind on recruiting due to the length of the Engineers’ season this year, which is vastly better than the alternative, but still leaves them in a bit of a bind. On the other hand, reaching the national semifinals is one of the best recruiting tools available, and team alumni have been pitching in by visiting schools and promoting the RPI program.
In the end, says King, they’ll “put the 11 best athletes on the field” and see where it takes them. In 2003, it nearly took them to the top.