Morrisville State once stood as a bottom of the barrel Division 3 College Football Program winning just 10 out of a total 70 games played over a 7 year span. At one point it seemed as if teams across the country would purposely schedule the Mustangs for their homecoming games almost as a guaranteed victory in front of their home crowd. However, the laughs only lasted until Curt Fitzpatrick took the head coaching reigns at Morrisville State entering the 2013 season.
Fitzpatrick was hired to replace longtime coach Terry Dow after the Mustangs finished the 2012 season with another 1-9 record. He had previously been serving as the Offensive Coordinator at Utica College, another Division 3 school located in Central New York. In his 1st season as Head Coach, Fitzpatrick & the Mustangs only finished with a overall record of 3-7. However, the highlight of that season might have been the fact that the Mustangs galloped over eventual NJAC Conference Champion Rowan 41-21 at Drake Field in Morrisville. Or maybe it was the dominating offensive performance surrounded by Fitzpatrick’s uptempo no-huddle offense that stood alone in the NJAC for rushing yards, passing yards, and points scored. The Mustangs also managed to break several school records that season and even finished 9th in the country for total offense. They also had four players named to the NJAC All-Conference 1st team including Quarterback Lemar Johnson, who was named Offensive Player of The Year. The program seemed to be going in the right direction but it was way too early to tell.
Entering the 2014 season, the Mustangs were selected as the “Dark Horse” for the NJAC and a real underdog to win the conference title. However, if they wanted a legitimate chance they had to make it happen now or never as Quarterback Lemar Johnson was entering his senior campaign for the Mustangs as well as wide receiver Josh Powell plus an experienced offensive line that was soon departing. It also appeared they didn’t have much experience defensively which was a key issue as many people know that defense wins championships.
Morrisville State opened up the season with a dominating performance over former junior college rival Alfred State 69-17. Next they would face Hartwick on the road, the same school that AFL standout Quarterback Jason Boltus attended. The Hawks shredded the Mustang defense early with their ground & pound run game and seemed to have the answer for Fitzpatrick’s offense after Lemar Johnson threw two interceptions that would both be returned for Hartwick touchdowns. However, the Mustangs managed to bounce back and defeat the Hawks 43-40 despite a late comeback attempt. The Mustangs now found themselves undefeated at 2-0 before traveling on the road to face St.Lawrence for their last non-conference game. After looking at the box score, it appeared to many that the Mustangs must have left their offense in Morrisville as the Saints rolled to a 31-14 victory, handing Morrisville State their first loss of the season. Fitzpatrick’s Mustangs couldn’t afford performances like this the rest of the season, especially entering conference play in the always tough NJAC. They hosted historical college football program Cortland State at home and defeated the Red Dragons 38-31, which sources confirmed was the first time in program history. The Mustangs would then go on to defeat The College of New Jersey 41-13. The following week dual-threat Quarterback Lemar Johnson made what would be a SportsCenter Top 10 Play at home vs Kean when he hurdled an opponent on 4th & 25 in the 4th quarter, tying the game at 31 before the Mustangs would go on to win 37-31. If you haven’t watched the play we recommend doing so as we swear we saw a flash of a young Michael Vick in there. We couldn’t imagine seeing this play live and listening to the reaction from the crowd!
Suddenly, things would turn ugly for the Mustangs. Despite winning three straight, they would be shut out at heavily conference favorite Rowan 31-0. It appeared the Mustangs hopes for a conference championship as well as a playoff spot were slowly dwindling away unless they could find a way to win from here on out and maybe receive some help from other teams around the NJAC. They would bounce back to defeat new NJAC opponent Southern Virgina 47-23 on the road before dominating William Paterson 38-14 at home. The Mustangs now stood at 7-2 and a shot at the NJAC title if they could defeat nationally ranked Montclair State on the road, a challenge everybody knew would be difficult. Montclair possessed one of the best defenses in the country led by Cornerback CJ Conway, who later broke into New York Giants minicamp as well as hard hitting Safety Eric Gargulio. Their offense couldn’t be taken lightly either led by power running back Denzel Nieves & Fullback Tariq Turner. Red Hawk Quarterback Ryan Davies had also been having a bounce back season and looked poised for an aerial attack on the Mustang defense.
Division3.com ran an article that whole week on Morrisville State’s sudden rise leading up to the big game as the Mustangs were starting to gain national attention due to Fitzpatrick’s coaching philosophy as well as his influence on the players in a program that was in such turmoil just a few seasons ago. Our guys here at Overlooked didn’t want to miss this one so we adventured out to New Jersey for what would be an exciting matchup. The Mustangs were on a mission this game and it was clear from the opening kickoff as they forced the Red Hawks to fumble on the return. You could tell Fitzpatrick and his coaching staff had a special game plan developed for this one as the Mustangs were absolutely dominate, cruising to a 38-20 victory over #23 ranked Montclair and most importantly a share of the NJAC title. There was no question this team was special especially after tracking their defensive performance throughout the season, an area where many people drew red flags due to the lack of experience.
Despite not getting a NCAA Playoff spot, Fitzpatrick & the Mustangs drew a familiar face in an ECAC North Bowl Game, the Utica Pioneers. As mentioned previously, Fitzpatrick was the Offensive Coordinator as well as the QB Coach alongside Utica Head Coach Blaise Faggiano before accepting the head coaching position at Morrisville State. Fitzpatrick & the Mustangs would win this battle with his former team in a high scoring affair 52-41 where Lemar Johnson would cap off his decorated college career with 5 Rushing Touchdowns. He would also capture NJAC Offensive Player of the Year for the 2nd consecutive season. Fitzpatrick was named NJAC Coach of The Year which seemed almost as a no brainer to many as the Mustangs finished 9-2, recording more wins that season compared to any years in the past. He was also named the East Region Coach of the Year.The Cinderella story of a season might’ve been one for the books but now the real challenge would lie ahead for Fitzpatrick’s Mustangs as they joined the Empire 8 Conference for the 2015 season.
For those of you who aren’t aware, the Empire 8 is one of the top conferences in the entire country for Division 3 Football featuring powerhouse programs like St.John Fisher and Ithaca as well as newly joined member Cortland. Fitzpatrick’s previous experience coaching at Utica as well as his playing career at St.John Fisher where he stared at Quarterback for the Cardinals, allowed him to provide his players with the tools necessary to succeed at this tougher level of competition. However, he would be forced to do it without previously graduated Quarterback Lemar Johnson, wide receiver Josh Powell, and a dominate offensive line. Things certainly looked tough for the Mustangs as Fitzpatrick would turn to transfer Quarterback Cory Benedetto, who was once a standout star at powerhouse Aquinas High School in Rochester, NY. He hadn’t seen much action at all throughout his college career but maybe Morrisville would be the change of scenery he needed for a fresh start. Fitzpatrick must’ve really influenced the performance of the 6’1, 210 pound Benedetto. In his Morrisville debut against St.Lawrence, he would throw for 276 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 28-20 victory. Soon it appeared the offense was rallying around Benedetto as the QB hooked up with senior wide out Anthony Mella as they formed one of the top duos in the conference. Fitzpatrick’s Mustangs finished last season 6-4 and proved that they can compete with the best of them as they knocked off highly regarded opponents like Ithaca, Cortland, Buffalo State, and St.Lawrence.
Entering the 2016 season, we can expect to see a breakout senior campaign from Quarterback Cory Benedetto. He seemed to really be finding his own last season throwing for 2,229 yards and 27 touchdowns. He should have more confidence under his belt this season and well when your head coach is Curt Fitzpatrick who has a long history of developing successful quarterbacks, chances are you are only going to get better. He’ll have to find a new favorite target though with the departure of Mella to graduation but after looking at last season’s stats we would expect to see guys like Marcus Jackson-Conner & Joseph Faniel make an impact in the receiving game. Senior TE Dennis Scherrer might be a factor as well or perhaps another target looking for a chance to breakthrough. The offensive line looks to be young so it should be interesting to see how they mold together to pass block for Benedetto and run block for whoever is the new face in the Mustang backfield for the departed Christian Pena. The defensive line looks to be very young as well but a linebacker corps like Wallace Stephens & Richardson Derosena should make opponents think twice about running or more importantly quarterbacks scrambling out of the pocket as the duo combined for 107 tackles last season. The biggest question we think though remains in the secondary with the departure of both safeties Caleb Wright & Shane Carroll. However there looks to be enough returners on the roster who could see action like Courtney Forrest, Tim Webber, Eddie Campos, Rah Boyd, or perhaps a talented incoming freshmen or transfer that Fitzpatrick & his staff have landed.
We here at Overlooked are confident that Coach Curt Fitzpatrick is ready for whatever challenge lies ahead as the Mustangs are slated to kickoff September 2nd on the road at St.Lawrence. He’s currently 18-13 entering his fourth season as head coach of the Mustangs with a conference title & a bowl championship under his belt. Kids seem to be buying into the program at Morrisville State so whatever his secret to success is, it’s clearly working. After seeing this team perform two seasons ago in New Jersey, we can tell you one thing that they look more like a family than a football team. Fitzpatrick has clearly installed trust and respect into his players and the players appear to believe in everything he stands for. That alone might be the reason for their recent success as they continue to climb up the ladder in Division 3 Football.