The champagne was on ice and the history books were ready to be amended. All that stood in the way of the Williams College football team popping the corks and celebrating the fourth perfect season in school history was the squad from rival Amherst College, a team that the Ephs have dominated over the past decade.
With a resounding 35-16 victory on the road at Amherst’s Pratt Field, the Ephs won the Little Three title outright and secured a place among the all-time great teams in school history. The win also extended Williams’ undefeated streak over “the Defectors” to 12 straight.
The 113th edition of “America’s Purest Rivalry,” played in front of a crowd of 10,411, featured great play-making and tactical decision-making on both sides of the ball. The game was replete with trick plays, fourth down stops, acrobatic catches and punishing hits. Even though the Lord Jeffs played a spirited game, the Ephs reigned supreme with better execution and play calling, showing why they deserve to be called one of the best ever.
At high noon, gun-slinging quarterbacks Sean Keenan ’00 and Amherst’s Peter Honig led their teams onto the field. On the opening kickoff, the Jeffs caught the Ephmen totally off guard with an onside kick. Amherst easily recovered the bouncing ball and held possession near midfield.
The Jeffs hoped that they could parlay their early burst of momentum into a quick score, but the Williams defense demonstrated enormous tenacity and didn’t allow Amherst to get any points off of their treachery. Matt Schreck ’99 burst through the line on the first play from scrimmage and sacked Honig. After a few completions by Honig, the Williams line stopped Honig on an option try on fourth and two.
Gaining possession on the turnover by downs, the Ephs, in their typical explosive fashion, moved the ball up the field with a balance of power rushing and precision passing. Keenan found receivers Matt Sigrist ’99 and Mike Paolercio ’00 each twice, and backs Fred Storz ’01 and Mike McAdam ’99 each had several crucial runs.
Paolercio made a remarkable catch on second and 14 when he dove and bobbled the ball before reeling it in. McAdam had a fourth down conversion bursting up the middle to extend the drive. Storz finally capped the effort with an easy one-yard touchdown jaunt, his sixteenth of the season, to put the Ephs on the board first for the eighth time this year. Bob Kaufman ’01 tacked on the extra point to make the score 7-0.
Amherst must have heard about Williams’ early strike ability that virtually takes opponents out of the game, because they responded with a fine touchdown strike of their own. Honig threw the ball to Matt Hall, his favorite receiver, four times on the drive, one for about 40 yards, as Hall extended and laid out for the ball at the five yard line. Sitting at the doorstep, Amherst almost killed its chances of getting back into the game with a delay of game penalty and a close second delay of game call, which was avoided with a time out.
The Jeffs recovered, however, and scored on the next play, when Honig hit Hall on a crossing pattern for the touchdown. The resulting seven points were the first given up by the Ephs defense all season in the first quarter, and the 7-7 score was the first time the Ephs had been tied, besides at 0-0, all year.
After each team’s defense denied the opposing offense a score, the Ephs offense regained its usual form and marched the ball up towards the Jeff’s end zone. On the drive, Sigrist set yet another all-time Williams record. This time, he caught his 113th career pass, breaking Mark Kossick’s ’97 mark of 112 receptions.
Though the passing game connected a few times on the drive, Storz was key to the touchdown drive. He had four consecutive runs which totaled 42 yards, including a 26- yard burst down the far sideline which put the ball at the two. From there, Keenan executed a perfect fake hand-off to Storz and then found tight end David Nemeskal ’99 all alone in the back of the end zone for the TD. Kaufman again converted to raise the Eph lead to 14-7.
A short time later, the Ephs’ offense was back at it, thanks to the Williams defense forcing a three and out. After three runs by Storz, Keenan hurled a ball to the back of the end zone where receiver Collin Vataha ’01 outjumped the Amherst defender and came down with a spectacular catch in the back corner of the end zone for the Ephs’ third score. Going into half-time, the score stood Williams 21, Amherst 7.
The third quarter featured the Williams defense, which had been the best in the NESCAC all year. Linebacker Steve Bradley ’99 intercepted a Honig pass early in the quarter, and linebacker Jim Thomas ’99 and linemen Will O’Brien ’00 and Chris Sweatman ’00 put relentless pressure on Honig and Amherst’s primary runner, Darin Byrne.
The offense tacked on another score when back Mike McAdam ’99 punched it in from three out. Entering the final period of the year, the Ephs held a commanding 28-7 lead.
In the fourth quarter, the Jeffs were reduced to passing nearly every down to try to mount a comeback. Honig injured his leg and Mike Sweeney came in to replace him at quarterback. Sweeney led Amherst to one score, bringing the Lord Jeffs to within 14 at 28-14, but was picked off three times in the quarter. John Berry ’00 had two of the interceptions, while Sigrist, pulling double duty and filling in at defensive back for injured Mike Hickey ’00, added one.
With a few minutes left on the clock, Nemeskal caught his second touchdown on the afternoon to cap the scoring for the Ephmen and put the game out of reach. With a minute left on the clock, Keenan ran the ball out of the back of the end zone to prevent an Amherst punt block, and the safety left the final score at 35-16.
Reaction to the game and the perfect season was the same from most of the Eph players. The senior players were especially happy. “It was a hell of a season,” said senior tri-captain Ken Becker. “It doesn’t get any better than this. To do something for only the fourth time in 113 years is incredible. I feel we improved each of my years here and to go out like this is fantastic.”
Sigrist, another senior tri-captain, added “we were the better team on Saturday and did what we had to do. The last few years we were the underdogs, but this year, being favored and all, we kept it conservative and wanted to outlast them.”
Storz felt that the Ephs’ balanced offense was the key to the game and the whole season. “Our offense depended on the defense all year, and they both fed off each other,” he said. “[Amherst] couldn’t take away one part of our offense without leaving room for the other. Our coaches knew what we could do athletically and stuck with the basics.”
Picking an MVP for the year would be almost impossible said the team. “It would be a disservice to the team,” noted Becker. “The whole team allows players to be outstanding and make us an 8-0 team.” Becker also felt that the younger players contributed greatly. “Without all of the underclassmen on the practice squads to go against every day we couldn’t have done this. They deserve credit for the perfect season.”
Being only the fourth team to finish the season with no losses or ties brings up questions as to how this team would match up against some of the other undefeated Eph squads. Head Coach Dick Farley, whose record is now 11-0-1 against the Jeffs, said, “[to compare them] is like comparing your kids. They’re all different. The strengths this year were the explosive passing game and the tremendous balance on the offense. Our defense bent but didn’t break. In today’s football there’s a lot of grab-bagging, where team
s don’t show patience and can’t wear down a defense any more. Our defense, whatever schemes they played, did a good job in not giving up the big plays.”
Sigrist, in comparing the 1998 team to that of 1995, which ended their campaign 7-0-1, feels that the skill positions were the key this year. “We had great guys like Sean Keenan and Fred Storz, athletic guys with physical gifts.” According to Sigrist, “the ’95 team was bigger, but it would be a tremendous game if we played. They would probably be the biggest test we had all season.”
With the team losing only five starters on defense and the offense a mere four, the Ephs should be a force again next year. Homecoming 1999 is set for the weekend of the 114th playing of “America’s Biggest Little Game,” and Williams hopes that they will again be popping the champagne and redrafting the history books to make room for a fifth Eph perfect season