By Dylan Butler
Two years ago the St. John’s football program tried to take a step up by joining the Northeast Conference after a successful six-year stint in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
But two years later, the Red Storm limp back to the MAAC after a 6-15 record, including a 1-9 mark last season, the worst in Bob Ricca’s 24 years.
The ripple effects from last year’s disappointment, as well as the school’s decision to do away with football scholarships, continue to affect St. John’s this year. The Red Storm are without their top rusher, a pair of quarterbacks and defensive standout, as Derek Jones, Marc Saracino, Kyle Lauver and Joe Maietta all decided to transfer.
Losing is something that is usually foreign for Ricca and the football program, as the Red Storm have a winning record in 19 of the 24 years of varsity football.
“We’re not used to a season like last year. I’ve never experienced anything like that for a lot of different reasons, obviously,” Ricca said. “One reason was that we were overmatched due to the reduction of scholarships. We were playing teams with 30 scholarships and we didn’t have any. We couldn’t compete on a week to week basis.”
Ricca believes a move back to the MAAC, where St. John’s is picked last in the preseason coaches poll, will give the Red Storm a better chance to complete against the lower half of the conference, but the top teams — including Duquesne, St. Peter’s, Fairfield and Marist — are on par with the elite NEC teams, he said.
Ricca has done his best to improve his team’s bruised ego. He dug into his video collection and pulled out highlights of the 1984 team, which was 1:20 away from going 0-3, but rallied to a dramatic win over Marist on their way to winning seven more games, including defeating undefeated Hofstra.
“We had to deal with the kids and build up their egos and psyches and things of that nature, work to try and convince people we would have a positive experience in the future,” Ricca said. “I think we’ve succeeded in that area because practice right now in preseason has been beautiful.”
After the worst football experience of his life, starting inside linebacker Bobby Rosenberg said the team grew closer together, beginning with the spring season.
“The spring was great,” said the junior co-captain. “We didn’t have a lot of bodies, but it was such a pleasure to play football with them. We’ve worked hard, we’re having fun and we’re getting better. We can’t wait to play some football.”
Joining Rosenberg defensively is sophomore free safety Orion Sykes, who was named NEC Defensive Rookie Player of the Year last year, fellow inside linebacker Frank Rullo, a junior from St. Francis Prep, Alex Otero, a junior defensive lineman who moved from the offensive line, and Chinedu “Chi Chi” Momah, a junior outside linebacker.
Ricca also likes what he sees from freshman nose guard Dimitris Facaros.
“He’s a little undersized, that’s why a lot of schools shied away from him,” Ricca said. “But he’s the top recruit we have this year and probably the top recruit we’ve had in the last couple of years.”
Offensively, though, there are a lot more question marks.
The biggest being at quarterback, which saw two players transfer and a third, Matt Millheiser, move to running back to help fill the void left by Jones, who rushed for 458 yards in six games last year.
Joe Micco, a sophomore transfer from Butler University, probably has the most experience. He is vying for the starting position with freshmen Mike Farrell and Danny Garza.
In the backfield, Millheiser is joined by returning tailback Matt McGuire, a junior who redshirted his sophomore year after shoulder surgery. Newcomers include freshmen Omar Coppin, Brian Crimmel and Nate Bell, out of Bridgeton Academy in Maine.
Senior Matt May, who led St. John’s with 60 catches for 825 yards, leads a young and inexperienced receiving corp. Ricca hopes moving junior Brett Henry from defense to tight end and freshman Matt Higgins, who Ricca says “has big play potential,” will provide some support for May, which is something the team lacked last year.
“The big problem last year was he didn’t have any help,” Ricca said. “Teams knew we were throwing to him. We knew it, they knew it. We had no other choice and we threw to him.”
The Red Storm opens its 2002 season with a rare home game against Canisius Saturday at 1 p.m., one of just four games at DaSilva Memorial Field this year. Because of the fragile psyche of the team, getting off on the right foot against the Golden Griffins is vital.
“If we go in there and play bad, the same thing that happened last year [can happen again],” May said. “We have to go out there and play mistake-free football because on any given day we can go out there and beat any team.”
Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by email at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 143.