By no stretch is this the senior season Emmett Cleary imagined.
He expected wins, because wins would change everything.
They would erase the hurt from being the team in 2011 that ended a run of 12 straight winning seasons. They would get the cynics off the back of coach Frank Spaziani. They would change the perception of a program that’s been in decline. They would allow Cleary and the other 15 seniors to ride off having reestablished the identity of a proud program.
Instead, the Eagles are 2-8, and the seniors are bracing for their final game at Alumni Stadium on Saturday against Virginia Tech.
In their time at The Heights, Cleary and his classmates have seen the program swing from a perennial bowl qualifier to one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s least successful teams. And as nice as it would be for nostalgia and reflection to set in with just two games left, winning won’t do anything to make this season what they had hoped, but it will make the taste less sour.
“In one sense we’re kind of too wrapped up in the day-to-day to really think about that,” Cleary said. “This is just a big conference game against Virginia Tech, an opponent we get up for every year. But for all the guys where it’s their last [home] game it’s definitely significant. You definitely want to play well. You want to get the win. I’m sure it might get to me Saturday, but we’ll see.”
This group of seniors is unique. Some of them, including Cleary, Nick Clancy, and Chris Pantale, represent the last traces of Jeff Jagodzinski’s influence on the program. Of the 29 members of Jagodzinski’s 2008 recruiting class, 11 left or were dismissed. Seven are now redshirt seniors and leaders, including Clancy, who came back this season to fight for the middle linebacker job. Others, like Jim Noel and John Wetzel, represent the first fingerprints of Spaziani’s tenure as coach, the first players who were wholly his to cycle through the program.
“I think it’s always an emotional thing for seniors playing their last home game, in varying degrees,” Spaziani said. “But I don’t think it quite hits them until that final whistle blows and they go down to the end zone and realize that’s the last time they’re going to do it.
“But those guys have been very good for us. They’ve worked hard, they’ve done everything we’ve asked of them, they’ve shown up every week, and they’ve tried to supply the leadership that we’ve needed. We’re just happy that we’ve had them, and we’re sorry we’re going to lose them.”
Some have stayed and worked their way onto the field, the way defensive lineman Bryan Murray has over five seasons. Some, like Dillon Quinn, left The Heights with nothing but unfulfilled potential. Some fell in between.
This hasn’t been the season that wide receiver Colin Larmond expected either. An injury sidelined him early on, then a three-game suspension kept him off the field. However, with the Eagles thin at receiver because of injuries to Bobby Swigert and Spiffy Evans, he will likely see the field on Saturday.
But watching a season go awry is nothing compared with seeing a career turn the way quarterback Dave Shinskie’s did.
Having played minor league baseball for seven years, Shinskie threw for 15 touchdowns as a 25-year-old freshman in 2009. The next season, he was supplanted by freshman Chase Rettig. Instead of sulking, he handled the change with poise, and is considering using a redshirt to come back for another season.
“These last four years for me have been probably the most memorable time of my life,” Shinskie said. “I’m going to miss it obviously, because I’ve been doing it for so long. That’s why I say, I’ve got an extra fifth year, so you never know.”
For everything that’s malfunctioned for the Eagles this season, injuries have taken a large toll. It was thought that after missing last season with plantar fasciitis, a healthy Kaleb Ramsey would be a veteran force in the middle of the defensive line, but a calf issue has kept him out for all but two games, and Spaziani has played musical chairs on the line.
The seniors that have been present all season have been even more critical for a team that’s been short on veteran leadership.
“Guys like Shinskie, Clancy, Cleary, those are the guys that have been around the block,” said sophomore center Andy Gallik. “They know the ins and outs of everything and how to do things the right way. They show up every day and work hard. Myself and all the other younger guys who’ve been surrounded for however many years we’ve been here, we kind of take their work ethic under our wing and we kind of use what they did to be successful. They’re great role models for our team.”
Rettig added, “I was able to pull things from them, and them accepting me in the huddle. You learn a lot from your peers and the guys who are ahead of you. I’ve been very fortunate to have the class ahead of me. They’ve all helped me achieve some of the things I’ve done. I’ve just learned from them.”
It won’t be the home finale they had hoped for, and they don’t have a postseason to look forward to, but in a season as difficult as this, the seniors’ final game at Alumni will be meaningful.
“It’s going to be a real emotional day Saturday,” Pantale said. “It’s going to be excitement, a little sadness, all that stuff. I think a lot of emotions are going to be running through my head. It’s just scary to reflect back on the amount of time I’ve spent here and how fast it went by. I think Saturday it would be a lot more enjoyable if we got a win, leave Alumni with a good taste in our mouths.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org