The MIT football team’s historic undefeated regular season and first-round playoff win are, according to Head Coach Chad Martinovich, “just part of the progression.”
MIT finished atop the New England Football Conference with a perfect nine victories and landed a spot in the NCAA Division III playoffs, where it won its first round game against Maine’s Husson University in overtime.
But in the second round on Saturday, MIT fell to Delaware’s Wesley College, which came out at full throttle to pull to a 49–0 lead after two quarters on its way to a 59–0 win. MIT finished the season 10–1.
The team’s season has gained attention from national news outlets, including front-page coverage in the Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe. But the players and coaches say that this year’s success is not a fluke — they see it as part of a positive trend that they expect to continue.
Coach Martinovich’s first two seasons at MIT in 2009 and 2010 saw the team go 1–8. Since then, the number of wins has increased each year — to five in 2012 and six in 2013. A major contribution came in the expansion of the program itself. According to Martinovich, the program swelled from a roster of about 50 to its current 95, and this increase was the first step toward competing at a high level.
Before this year’s season even started, there was already a feeling among the team that they would break new ground. When practice started in August, Martinovich noticed, “There was a new level of confidence because of what we were able to accomplish last year and having so many starters coming back.”
“[The players] had it in their minds that, minimally, we were going to win a conference championship.”
The confidence might have been built upon last year’s 6–3 season. Wide Receiver Seve A. Esparrago ’16 said of last year, “one thing we’ve seen is that we can play with any team in our conference. We could have won almost any of the games.” The team capitalized on that feeling, scoring an average of 42.4 points a game in conference matchups.
For the players, the success is very much about attitude. Esparrago said, “We don’t go into games and say, ‘We’re gonna try our best’… I think we all expect to win, and that’s been the goal from day one.”
The team is held up by strong leadership from its more experienced players, as defensive back Anthony J. Souffrant ’15 can attest. He’s seen the difficult transition from high school to college football, and said, “As a junior and senior you try to make sure that [younger players] know that it’s gonna be a little bit tougher, and I’ve think I’ve done a good job of doing that.”
MIT finally fell at Wesley College, where the Wolverines racked up 35 points in the first quarter — including 28 in two minutes — and never gave MIT a chance to recover. Wesley slowed down in the second half but finished the game 59-0 to secure a spot in the quarterfinals.
There was clearly disappointment after the loss. “We played a very good team that capitalized on some early mistakes we made,” said Martinovich. “We went into the game thinking that we could win, like we do every game… but the better team on that day won.”
The offseason presents a chance for players to show their dedication to their craft, and Martinovich believes they’ll be motivated by the level of achievement seen this season. For a Division III school, offseason conditioning and workouts are not mandatory, but Ryan S. Hays ’18 said, “I guarantee that most of us, if not all of us, will end up being there working year-round.”
Hays said the caliber of student athletes at MIT is special. “The reason that we’re here [at MIT] is because we have the drive and perseverance to do well. Football is very much the same thing. Being an athlete means being meticulous in the short term, and maybe it’s boring and tedious, but in the long term that helps you reach your goals.”
Being a student athlete at MIT presents unique challenges. To ensure that new team members are well organized, Coach Martinovich pairs each freshman with an upperclassman mentor and has them create “life schedules” to map out how they spend their time. Players feel the meticulous planning translates to more focus — on football on the field and academics off.
Coach Martinovich hopes MIT will repeat and exceed this year’s performance on a regular basis. He concluded, “I hope we never hit the ceiling. I don’t think we have.”