Allen Lessels' UNH Notebook: Plenty at stake for gridders
DURHAM -- The playoffs are the ultimate payoff.
But the University of New Hampshire football team has more immediate goals in mind, too, when it takes on William & Mary on Saturday at noon in Cowell Stadium.
The Wildcats last beat William & Mary in 1998, late in the final season of coach Bill Bowes and running back Jerry Azumah.
"I haven't beaten them in my career," said junior defensive lineman Sean McCann, speaking for a decade's worth of Wildcats. "It would be nice to get this one."
For a bunch of reasons.
The Wildcats are 7-2 overall and 5-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association and are ranked No. 11 in the country. William & Mary is 2-6 and 1-4.
One more win unofficially clinches UNH a spot in the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision tournament for a ninth straight season.
"We've put ourselves in a good position to do something no UNH team has done before," McCann said. "That's really our goal right now, to do that. Be the conference champion and go to the playoffs and go from there."
UNH won its last outright league championship, then the Yankee Conference, in 1994.
Through their impressive playoff run, the Wildcats have not won the conference title by themselves. They have won the Northern Division when the league was divided into two parts, and they shared the crown with Richmond in 2005, but they have not won it outright.
They need a little help to do it this year, but are taking a shot.
Old Dominion and James Madison are both 4-1 in the league going into Saturday's games. ODU, though, is passing through the league on the way to the Football Bowl Subdivision and is not eligible for the championship or the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
That leaves UNH and JMU and they don't play each other.
The Wildcats have Nov. 10 off and then finish the regular season at home against Towson. James Madison has a tough road ahead: The Dukes are at Maine on Saturday, at Villanova on Nov. 10 and play ODU at home on Nov. 17.
The other pressing issue is getting that eighth win.
UNH has received at-large invitations to the tournament with 7-4 records in 2007 and 2010, but that's always a dicey proposition and leaves the decision in the hands of a committee and subject to what other teams are doing.
McDonnell said he's not thinking about playoff scenarios.
"I just know that if we keep taking care of business, something good will come our way," he said.
That Towson might be fighting for a playoff berth in the season finale adds to the intrigue. The Tigers are 4-4 and will attempt to keep their hopes alive at Delaware on Saturday and home against Rhode Island on Nov. 10.
If UNH were to lose against William & Mary, and Towson were to win its next two games, it could leave a 7-3 UNH and 6-4 Towson playing for what might be one playoff spot on Nov. 17.
The Wildcats will try to keep it from coming down to that scenario.
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SOPHOMORE goaltender Casey DeSmith and the UNH hockey team had their problems in the first period against Northeastern last Friday at the Whittemore Center.
The Huskies got a puck past DeSmith 33 seconds into the game, went up 3-0 with 8:15 left in the period and threatened to make a quick end of UNH's three-game winning streak to open the season.
"That usually rattles a goaltender and makes it difficult on him the rest of the night," said UNH coach Dick Umile.
DeSmith did not give up another goal that night. Or the next. "He stayed with it," Umile said. "He's proven he can let it go and focus on the next shot."
DeSmith shut the Huskies out over the final 48 minutes and 15 seconds of that game and then through 65 minutes on Saturday.
The Wildcats rallied for 4-3 win on Friday night and then played their first scoreless tie since Jan. 5, 2001 on Saturday at Northeastern for a three-point weekend.
DeSmth was named Hockey East's Goalie of the Month for October on Friday. He has a 1.77 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage.
UNH got the start it wanted to the season and now, up to No. 9 in the country with a 4-0-1 overall record and 2-0-1 mark in the league, hits a road-heavy portion of the schedule.
The Wildcats are at Massachusetts tonight at 7 and then, in a nasty bit of travel, have to reverse direction and play at Maine on Sunday at 4.
The Minutemen, under first-year coach John Micheletto, are 1-3-0 overall and 0-3-0 in the league.
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The No. 5-seeded men's soccer team, 6-7-4 overall and 2-3-1 in the league, plays at No. 4 Albany on Saturday at 6 in an America East tournament quarterfinal.
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Allen Lessels covers college sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at email@example.com..