Joe Walton, Walt Hameline and the others knew they were starting something worthwhile back in the mid-1990s, but could they have imagined this?
NEC football began as a five-team, non-scholarship league in 1996.
As former NEC Commissioner John Iamarino, now the head man at the Southern Conference, said in a 2010 interview, “The league has come light years in such a short time.”
More evidence of the NEC’s meteoric rise was on display when the Sports Network announced its 2013 Division I FCS All-America Teams.
The NEC never had a Sports Network All-America selection until 2001 when former Wagner linebacker Daryn Plummer earned a spot on the Third Team.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the NEC garnered more than one selection in the same season. Central Connecticut running back Justise Hairston (Second Team) and Robert Morris defensive end Ray Gensler (Third Team) were the culprits.
Now, back to the present day when EIGHT (8) NEC student-athletes are celebrating Sports Network FCS All-America honors.
“I can honestly say that we have high-quality, extremely-talented players in the NEC,” said Sacred Heart running back Keshaudas Spence. The 2013 NEC Offensive Player of the Year earned a place on the All-America Third Team.
The NEC’s number of All-American selections as well as the league’s heavy presence on the national FCS statistical leader boards help justify Spence’s claim.
At the conclusion of the regular season, three of the top-seven leading rushers in Division I FCS were Northeast Conference running backs. Spence, Saint Francis’ Kyle Harbridge and Central Connecticut’s Rob Hollomon all rushed for over 1,400 yards and earned All-America honors to boot.
Duquesne linebacker Christian Kuntz, a Sports Network Third Team All-American, averaged 1.8 tackles for loss per game to lead the nation.
“It is nice to see all of our hard work get noticed under a national scope,” said Harbridge, who was named a All-America Second Team running back.
Harbridge’s 1,619 rushing yards (in only 11 games) were the third-most by a FCS back during the 2013 regular season.
The Red Flash running back averaged the second-most all-purpose yards per game (188.2) on the FCS leader board. Only Hollomon, a Second Team selection at the all-purpose position, posted a greater average (189.2 ypg) amongst national leaders.
Robert Morris cornerback Antwan Eddie was billed a Third Team All-American for his punt returning prowess.
“Antwan [Eddie] is a top-10 play type of returner,” said Robert Morris left tackle AJ Dalton, who was one of the NEC’s four selections on the Sports Network All-America Second Team this season.
“He’s fun to watch. He possesses great speed and ball skills and he comes to work everyday.”
Meanwhile, Eddie had some complimentary words for his fellow Colonial.
“AJ Dalton is a great person on and off the field,” said Eddie, a junior who hails from South Florida. “I looked up to him because of his hard work and I continued to push myself as he did.”
According to Eddie, Dalton showed no shortage of leadership ability.
“He always helped us keep a positive attitude – always,” the All-NEC cornerback/return specialist exclaimed.
Dalton’s graduation will leave big shoes to fill on RMU’s offensive line, but the Colonials will have their All-American punt returner back for another season.
In fact, six of the NEC’s eight All-America selections have at least one season of NCAA eligibility remaining.
Harbridge and Dalton are the lone two who have exhausted their eligibility, and both men may get the opportunity to continue their careers at the next level.
With top talent returning, NEC football could be in for more exciting days ahead.
Certainly, the “founding fathers” have to smile about what the NEC has become.
Sports Network All-America Second Team
Kyle Harbridge, RB (Saint Francis)
AJ Dalton, LT (Robert Morris)
Troy Moore, DT (Sacred Heart)
Rob Hollomon, AP (Central Connecticut)
Sports Network All-America Third Team
Keshaudas Spence, RB (Sacred Heart)
Christian Kuntz, LB (Duquesne)
Antwan Eddie, PR (Robert Morris)
Phil Faccone, LS (Wagner)
Read The Sports Network’s Official 2013 FCS All-America News Release
More on the Evolution of NEC Football
In 2003, the first NEC football game was televised. Three years later, the NEC Presidents voted in favor of athletic grants-in-aid.
In 2006, Central Connecticut and Albany became the first NEC teams to ever crack the National Top-25 rankings. Wins over programs such as Delaware, Georgia Southern and Lehigh gave FCS fans around the nation no choice, but to take notice of the Northeast Conference.
It wasn’t until 2010, however, that the NEC acquired an automatic berth into the NCAA FCS playoffs. Silencing the folks who said the NEC didn’t belong, league champion Robert Morris went into the Fargo Dome and held a 7-6 over North Dakota State at halftime. Even though the Colonials didn’t escape with an upset for the ages, they made their point – they BELONGED.
In 2012, Wagner became the first program to host an FCS playoff game. The Seahawks proceeded to post the NEC’s first0ever playoff victory by downing Patriot League champion Colgate, 31-20, on Grymes Hill.