Mount Union takes on W&J in playoffs

By Eric Hamilton

ALLIANCE — The Mount Union College football team will begin its quest for the program’s 11th NCAA Division III national championship Saturday when it faces Washington & Jefferson (9-1) at noon at Mount Union Stadium.

The Presidents, located in Washington, Pa., have the distinction of being one of the few teams that Mount Union has never defeated. W&J holds a 4-0 advantage in the all-time series, which includes contests in 1913 and 1914 and 1940 and 1941.

Despite a gap of 68 years in the series, the Purple Raiders and Presidents are far from strangers. The programs have scrimmaged in the preseason since 1985. In addition, the coaches and players in each program know each other very well.

Washington & Jefferson coach Mike Sirianni graduated from Mount Union in 1994 and played for Mount Union’s Larry Kehres as an All-OAC receiver.

He was part of the program’s first national title team in 1993 and served as an assistant coach at Mount Union on the 1996 and 1997 championship teams.

“We knew this was going to happen eventually and we have respect for Coach and the entire program,” said Sirianni, who has the Presidents in the postseason for the seventh straight year. “Saying all that, it does not matter to the kids on either team where I went to school or anything else and they have to play the game.

“It is a huge challenge for us and we have to play a near perfect game and they have to make some mistakes. We have to try to get to halftime and see where we are at. We need to make plays and stop them from making plays.”

Like Mount Union, Washington & Jefferson is a playoff veteran. This is the 21st postseason appearance for the Presidents and although they have not won a national championship, they played in the Stagg Bowl in 1992 and 1994 — in the same era that Mount Union began its run of 10 championships.

The Purple Raiders are 10-0 overall and won their 18th straight and 20th Ohio Athletic Conference title to claim the conference’s automatic bid.

Mount Union is making its 21st NCAA playoff appearance with a record of 61-10 (.859) in the playoffs with 10 national championships.

Mount Union has played in the Stagg Bowl, the national championship game, 11 of the last 13 seasons.

Washington & Jefferson went 9-1 and finished second in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference and claimed one of six national at-large bids to the NCAA playoffs.

“They are a very solid and strong football team and we have a tremendous amount of respect for them and what they do,” said Kehres. “On defense, two of their defensive coaches, Matt Caponi and Justin Stickley, are former players here and their defense takes on some of the great qualities that those two had as players for us.”

Both teams are led by first-year starters at quarterbacks after losing veterans to graduation.

Mount Union Kurt Rocco is the nation’s leading passer after taking over for All-American Greg Micheli. Rocco is the nation’s highest rated quarterback (210.95) and also tops the OAC in completion percentage (69.5 percent), passing yards (2,680) and touchdowns (31).

Senior wideout Cecil Shorts has over 3,000 career receiving yards, good for fourth in school history.

W&J is led by junior Gino Rometo who has completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 1,617 yards with 17 touchdowns. His top target is senior Craig Besong, who has 83 catches for 1,006 yards and nine touchdowns.

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