Amherst Magazine

The Perfect Season

By Justin Long

1. The game
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Amherst’s Jeff Katz ’11 gets tied up during the showdown in Williamstown.

Three and a half hours before the biggest game of his football career, wide receiver Andrew Reed ’12 sat at the piano in a country inn midway between Amherst and Williamstown. As he played the Journey power ballad “Don’t Stop Believin’,” his teammates sang along. His coaches smiled.

It was a surreal moment, an example of the relaxed, self-assured mindset that the team would need later that day, when, near the end of the fourth quarter of the showdown at Williams on Nov. 14, 2009—the final game of the season—the 7-0 Lord Jeffs lost a fumble, handing the Ephs a chance to win. Every Amherst fan at Weston Field and watching live on television around the world likely had the same thought: here we go again.

The game had started well enough. The Jeffs struck first with an early field goal, the first time all season they had scored on their opening drive. But the Ephs soon shocked the conference’s top defense with a pair of long touchdown passes to take a 14-3 lead, marking the first time all year that Amherst had allowed two touchdowns in the first half.

“We knew Williams had the most balanced offense in the NESCAC,” Head Coach E.J. Mills said later. “We knew we weren’t going to stonewall them. We had to be ready for them to score, and we had to step up. I didn’t feel panic—I just told the guys to settle down.”

They settled down, all right. Quarterback Alex Vetras ’11 threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to Reed to make it a 14-10 game. Eric Bunker ’12 recovered a fumble and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown, to hand the lead back to Amherst for the final points of the first half. Matt Rawson ’12 kicked a 28-yard field goal for the only points of the third quarter. Vetras then threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Brian Murphy ’11 to open the scoring in the fourth quarter. Amherst had scored 23 consecutive points to take a 26-14 lead. Only 13 minutes and 41 seconds stood between the Lord Jeffs and perfection.

Williams pushed back with a rushing touchdown three minutes later, to make it 26-21. After each team punted on its next possession, Amherst began to march down the field with 6:20 to play. Aaron Rauh ’10 rushed for a first down to Amherst’s 34-yard line. Five minutes to perfection. Vetras ran for a first down to the 46-yard line. Four minutes.

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Eric Bunker ’12 recovers a fumble during the first half of the Williams game, the last match of the historic, undefeated season. He returned the fumble 33 yards for a crucial touchdown.

Then, the fumble. With 3:44 to play in regulation and the wind taken out of Amherst’s sails, the Ephs began a potentially game-winning drive on Amherst’s 43-yard line. Here we go again. It took only two plays for Williams to get a first down. After an incomplete pass and a pair of running plays, Williams faced 4th-and-4 from the 23-yard line. The next play would be the biggest of the game. It would be one of the biggest in the rivalry’s history. Mills called a timeout to organize his defense. Williams called a timeout to organize its offense. Seventy-eight seconds remained.

This story had been told before. Williams had ruined Amherst’s perfect season three times since 1996 (and seven in history). So many times, Amherst had been crushed by its archrival in the final moments. Amherst fans have sat through almost as many heartbreaks as Red Sox fans have. But this team wasn’t scared, nervous or worried. “I thought it was appropriate that the defense had the opportunity to seal the victory,” says defensive back Fred Argir ’10. “I remember guys saying that next play was the biggest of our lives. Everyone was completely focused in the huddle, and the magnitude of the moment was completely understood.”

“In my four years here, nothing has ever come easily,” adds Mike Taylor ’10, “so why should it start with two minutes left at Williams with a perfect season on the line?”

They were right not to worry. When Williams dumped a short pass to the left side of the field, co-captain Chris Govey ’10 was there. The Ephs needed four yards to keep their season alive. Govey made sure they got only three. “I hit him before he even got to look up-field,” says Govey. “When I flipped my head around and saw the referee’s spot short of the first down, I knew we had won the game.”

All that was left to do was run out the clock. Vetras took a knee, and Williams called its final timeout. Seventy seconds to perfection. Vetras took another knee. Sixty seconds. When the play clock approached zero, Vetras took the final snap of the season, touched his knee to the ground and sealed the victory. Amherst 26, Williams 21. Perfection.

2. The fans
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Hundreds of Amherst fans made the trip to Williamstown.

Fans poured from the stands in herds. Argir was too exhausted to speak to his father, who had sprinted onto the field. Taylor climbed on the shoulders of co-captain Eric Pender ’10 while the entire team sang the victory song, “Lord Jeffery Amherst,” for the eighth and final time of the year. Pender and Govey hoisted the NESCAC Championship trophy. Fans were ecstatic—some cried. In the locker room, it was madness. Cigars were lit. Champagne was sprayed. “I was kind of in shock,” says Taylor. “It didn’t hit me until a few days later what we had actually accomplished.”

Amherst’s first win over Williams since 2004—and its first at Weston Field since 1985—gave the program its first-ever outright NESCAC title. It was only the third 8-0 season in program history, and the first since legendary head coach James Ostendarp led Amherst to perfection in 1984. (The 1964 perfect season also came during The Darp’s 33-year reign.) Perhaps more thrilling, it was the first time Amherst had won its eighth game on Williams’ home field.

Bob Minicus ’85 was captain of the last team that went 8-0. In his office at Fidelity Investments in Boston, he has an inscribed piece of a wooden goalpost that fans tore down in celebration that day in 1984. (They didn’t hand out NESCAC trophies back then.) Minicus spent this year’s Amherst-Williams game huddled around the TV with his family, and when Amherst sealed the win, he hugged his children with a tear in his eye. “I must have said, ‘Good for them,’ about 10 times,” Minicus says. “It brought back a lot of memories and positive emotions.”

For other football alumni, the win brought redemption. Back in 1997, Rich Willard ’98 threw five touchdowns in a 48-46 loss to Williams, during which the Ephs kicked the winning field goal with two seconds left, to deny Amherst a perfect season. “That loss is still with me,” says Willard, who, with other former players, watched this year’s game at a New York City bar. “You won’t find a more devastating way to lose than the way we did. I am unbelievably happy for Coach Mills and Coach [Don] Faulstick, and for their players. They were able to do what we couldn’t do. There is a huge sense of redemption.”

But to Dan Lalli ’02 and Rick Murphy ’73, redemption isn’t the right word. Lalli was a captain and linebacker on the 2001 Amherst team that finished 7-1, thanks to a 23-20 loss to Williams in overtime—the only overtime game in the rivalry’s history. Lalli, who lives in Hoboken, N.J., followed this year’s game online. “I didn’t necessarily feel redemption, because that loss will always bother me,” he says. “Seeing the team go 8-0 with a hard-fought win over Williams just made me feel very proud of Amherst football.”

Murphy was quarterback of the 1972 team that had its perfect season spoiled by a 21-12 loss to Williams. “This year’s outcome brought a sense of renewal,” he says. “Even though it’s statistically a small step, because it’s only one win, it will hopefully begin a period of renewed competitiveness in a rivalry so important for both schools to nurture and sustain.”

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Diane Govey's son, Chris '10, made the game-winning tackle.

Murphy traveled from Hingham, Mass., to Weston Field to watch this year’s game. When he realized he was in the same section as he’d been in two years ago, when Amherst lost at Williams, he switched seats at halftime to bring the team different luck. “On a personal level, I thought back to The Darp and a deceased former teammate who would have enjoyed the game,” he says. “I also began to think about all the other people who weren’t able to be there but had helped build Amherst’s football foundation and deserved to enjoy it with the current coaches and players.”

This year’s Amherst-Williams game ranks among the most satisfying for George Carmany ’62, who’s been watching Amherst football since 1947. But there’s at least one he may have enjoyed more. “There was one game in the early ’80s where I believe we were ahead 45-0 at halftime,” he says with a laugh, “and I rather enjoyed that one.” He adds, “There have been a lot of great games, but they all seem to have gone the wrong way for us. I felt like we were long overdue.”

Team adviser Barry O’Connell, the James D. Ostendarp Professor of English, has become close with many on this year’s team. “This season was a heroic story about student-athletes who found the fullness of their talents and used every bit of it,” he says. “That’s a very important lesson to learn in an educational environment. If you work hard enough, you can always reach the limits of your talent regardless of what people expect of you.”

3. The season
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Taylor (just left of center, with long hair) and his muddy teammates celebrate the long-awaited victory on Weston Field.

Defensive back Argir will tell you the 2009 season was destiny. But many factors created the perfect storm. Last year’s team let leads slip away and struggled late in games. This year’s team (which was tied or trailing at halftime in four of the eight games) outscored opponents 58-26 in the fourth quarter and 88-35 in the second half. Notably, Bowdoin led 12-6 on Oct. 3 until Amherst scored the game-winning touchdown with 2:47 remaining in regulation. Similarly, Trinity—which had won seven straight against Amherst—jumped out to a 9-0 lead and led 12-7 at halftime, but Amherst scored 16 unanswered points in the second half.

“The comebacks speak to the outstanding group of seniors,” Mills says. “Their commitment and focus were evident throughout the offseason. They mentally stayed focused and believed in each other. We had practiced extremely well all year, so those pressure situations were nothing new to us; they made us better.”

Each of the 12 seniors played a significant role this year, but Taylor and Argir stood out. Taylor led the team in tackles and was named NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year. Argir led the NESCAC in interceptions and was named to the D3football.com All-America Second Team. “I put my time in and prepared well for this season, and it’s always nice when preparation and hard work pay off,” Taylor says. “This season has been the best overall experience of my life. I almost have to pinch myself to make sure it’s real.”

Mills was named the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston’s Division II/III New England Head Coach of the Year and was the unanimous choice for NESCAC Coach of the Year—both firsts for Mills, who served as an Amherst assistant coach from 1993 to 1996 before taking over as head coach in 1997. This year Amherst ranked nationally among the top five teams in scoring defense for the fourth time since Mills joined the staff, also leading Division III in sacks per game and rushing defense. “He is one of the best defensive minds around,” says Argir of Mills. “I plan on stealing his entire defensive playbook when I start coaching.”

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Raising the championship plaque

Mills is quick to credit his coaching staff—notably, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Don Faulstick, who came to Amherst in 1997. “Stick is basically a co-head coach,” Mills says. “He’s done an outstanding job of molding a talented group of players and coaches as the head coach of the offense.”

Luke Bussard—who this season replaced Mills as the team’s defensive coordinator—made life easier for the Amherst head coach. “People probably don’t have an appreciation for how many decisions you have to make in a game,” Mills says. “Middlebury ran 99 plays against us, which means that’s 99 calls we had to make on defense. Buss made a lot of those decisions, and it became easier to call games because we were so on the same page. It took a lot off my plate and allowed me to focus on the bigger picture, which was the entire team rather than just the defense.”

Mills, who had been the team’s defensive coordinator since 1993, notes another perk of Bussard’s newfound responsibilities: “All the good calls we made, those were my calls; all the bad calls we made, those were his calls,” he jokes.

In recent years, Amherst struggled against Middlebury and Trinity and couldn’t find a way to win on the Ephs’ home field. Too many barriers stood in the way of perfection. But this year’s team knocked all the barriers down. The Jeffs beat Middlebury and Trinity. They won at Williams. They established a new sense of confidence to carry into 2010 and beyond.

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Defensive backs Vinny DiForte '10 (Number 22) and Fran Florio '10 (Number 24) embrace at the end of the game.

“We never gave up in any game,” Govey says. “We found ways to win, we had starters from freshmen to seniors, we played our best in the fourth quarter, and we were the closest group of friends imaginable. Everyone believed in each other no matter what the circumstance, and together we found a way to win every game. With all due respect, there may be no better team in the history of this program.”

Four days after the end of the perfect season, Mills and his staff evaluated the team’s depth chart, considered possible position changes for certain players and discussed potential recruits. They were off and running. “You enjoy it, but now you’ve got to work even harder for next year,” Mills says. But the fans don’t need to move on just yet. They can savor this one for a little longer.

Justin Long, the co-director of sports information at Amherst, is a frequent contributor to the Amherst magazine Sports section.

Photos by Alec Jacobson '12, Jessica Mestre '10 and Geoff Giller '10

The college has produced a documentary, A Season to Remember, that looks back on the 2009 football season through interviews with seniors, captains and coaches. For more information or to purchase a copy, go to www.amherst.edu/athletics/misc/footballdvd.