Just five years ago, qualifying for the NCAA Division II football playoffs appeared to be out of reach for Assumption College.
But on Saturday at noon, Assumption will meet Indiana (Pa.) University in a quarterfinal game at Miller Stadium. It will be just the second time a New England school has reached the quarterfinal round since New Haven played in the national championship game in 1997. New Haven also reached the quarterfinals in 2011.
In 2012, Assumption went 3-7. Coach Cory Bailey, whose team has hovered near the .500 mark during most of his eight-year tenure, left for a job at Coastal Carolina.
Bob Chesney took over after a successful run at Salve Regina and, much like he did at Salve Regina, Chesney slowly began to implement a winning formula at Assumption.
“It was a similar situation at Salve,” said Chesney, who went 23-9 in three seasons at Salve. “You look at it and wonder, ‘Are the kids losers?’ and rarely that’s the case. I was very fortunate to acquire a team of smart players who were doing things right off the field and needed just a bit of a bump on the field.”
In his first season, Chesney guided Assumption to a 6-5 record — just the sixth winning season in program history. Assumption finished 7-4 the following season, laying the groundwork for a string of playoff appearances.
The Greyhounds made their first Division II playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016, going 11-2 and 9-3.
Assumption is 11-1 this season after beating California (Pa.), 40-31, in the first round and Findlay, 45-26, in last Saturday’s second-round game. Chesney has posted a 44-15 record in five seasons at the Worcester school; in the 15 seasons prior to his arrival, Assumption won a total of 43 games.
“Something we try to implement is attention to detail,” said Chesney, the Northeast 10 Conference’s coach of the year. “Having a positive attitude and doing things with immense amounts of urgency both on and off the field. It’s a strong message that our players believe in and add to it.
“It’s a by-product of trying to be great and that was how we defined greatness.”
Senior wide receiver Ashton Grant is a prime example of how Chesney’s system has changed the Assumption program. Grant was not highly recruiting coming out of high school — until Chesney came calling.
“He believed in me when no one else did,” Grant said. “He made that an emphasis, he believed in me. Without him, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
Grant and teammates have carried Chesney’s attention to detail over to everyday life. Whether its classes or cleanliness in the locker room and dining hall, Chesney makes sure his players focus on the little things.
“Coach harps on attention to detail,” Grant said. “He tells us to make sure our whole life is taken care of so football is the easiest thing we have to worry about.
“It’s focus on the little things that translates into success.”
Not only has the program tied the record for wins in a season, but the team has put in complete-game efforts on each side of the ball.
The offense has scored more than 40 points nine times and eclipsed the 50-point plateau on five occasions. The 546 points shattered the school record set two years ago when the Greyhounds lit up opponents for 510 points over 13 games.
On the defensive and special teams fronts, the Greyhounds are the NCAA Division II leaders in turnover margin (1.58) and average punt return yards (23.26). Against Findlay, Assumption scored on a pair of Deonte Harris kickoff returns and a pick-six by Carlins Platel.
“The standard is now set and it’s a responsibility to live up to it,” Chesney said. “That standard starts in practice on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and continues all week into the game. It’s each individual person urgently finding their assignment.
“It’s a testament to how well we practice and how seriously they take it.”
The program’s turnaround has seen an influx of talent. Grant was the NE-10’s Offensive Player of the Year last season and Harris earned NE-10 MVP honors in 2017.
Grant is one of 26 seniors on the Greyhounds’ roster..
“Everyone takes each other under their wing,” Grant said. “Lots of older guys mentor the younger guys. Our team camaraderie has led to our success.”
“These guys do it all together,” sChesney said. “The seniors don’t sit back and have feelings of entitlement. Everybody is working together toward a common goal.”Dan Shulman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanielRShulman.