A Team For The Ages

Members of the 1981 Middlebury College football team returned for Homecoming this year to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their legendary squad. Pictured l. to r. are: Jim Loveys ’82, Jeff Connolly ’84, Bob Crews ’84, Bill Genovese ’82, Mike Heffernan ’82, Dave LaPann ’78 (former player and coach), Bob Mahl ’83, Mickey Heinecken (former head football coach), and Bob Smith (former assistant football coach and current head baseball coach). Also at game but not pictured: Martin Beatty ’84 and Bob Ritter ’82. Here’s a look back at the team that was.

On the eve of the 1981 football season
, ninth-year head coach Mickey Heinecken told the Middlebury Campuss Steve Riley ’82: “I feel good about this football team. I am not hedging on the question of how good we can be. How far we can go in terms of wins and losses is all relative at this point. We’re a good football team. Whether or not we are better than everyone else is impossible to say.”

That weekend, the Panthers travelled down Route 7 to Williamstown, Massachusetts and promptly lost to Williams, 24-7. Middlebury would not lose again the rest of the season.

Mickey Heinecken was hedging, actually.
Just a little bit. The Panthers had not posted a losing season in 11 years, and while that streak wasn’t in jeopardy that fall, uncertainties abounded. The starting quarterback, Tom Mahon ’84, broke his leg in a pre-season scrimmage and was lost for the year; running back depth was of sufficient concern that a senior who had played the prior season on the defensive side of the ball was not only switched to halfback for his final year but named the starter prior to the Williams contest (that the player in question would years later succeed Heinecken as the coach of the Panthers says something about his knowledge of the game and why this move paid off); and while Middlebury returned perhaps the best receiving tandem in all of Division III—Beau Coash ’82 and Ted Virtue ’82—there was a question of who, exactly, was going to get them the ball (see: Mahon, Tom, lost for the season).

Senior Jim Loveys was Heinecken’s answer to the biggest question marks, who would play QB and field marshal the Panther offense, and after the Williams game, the coach’s pre-season hedge was not becoming any more clear. Yes, Virtue corralled a Loveys pass for a second quarter touchdown and an early Panther lead (7-3), but the score was one of the only bright spots on the afternoon. The Middlebury signal caller was sacked six times and threw a pair of interceptions, the Panther defense allowed 21 unanswered points, and the team returned north with more questions than answers.

Ironically, clarity was achieved in the pouring rain and on a shoe-sucking field of mud the following week. Loveys rushed for 100 yards and three touchdowns while passing for 115 and another score in just three quarters of play; Bob Ritter ’82, the new halfback, gained an additional 100 yards on the ground; and the Middlebury D limited the Bates Bobcats to less than 100 yards rushing and a lone touchdown in a 35-7 rout. Afterwards, Loveys was awarded the Golden Helmet by the New England Press Association as the New England Division III player of the week, and the Panthers were launched on a seven-game winning streak that would culminate in the region’s number-one ranking at year’s end.

The rest of the season played out the way you’d expect
for what had turned out to be (no hedging needed now) one of the best teams in the country. No game was close, as week after week, scoreboards across New England reflected one-sided affairs: 22-7 over Amherst; 48-21 over Tufts; 45-14 over Colby; 55-0 over Hamilton; 28-0 over Union; and 40-20 over in-state rival Norwich.

School records were set, several of which (*) still stand today. Beau Coash set marks for career yardage, 1,595; career receptions, 94; career touchdowns, 17*; and touchdowns in a season, 9*. Ted Virtue established a single-season receiving record of 581 yards, edging out Coash by all of two yards. Mark Conroy’s four rushing touchdowns* against Colby was (and still is) a single-game record. The 3,572 total yards of offense and 2,322 rushing yards* were not only record-setting but good enough to give the Panthers the top-ranked offense in the entire country. (And let’s give some credit to the offensive lineman, who rarely get singled out unless they make a mistake: tackles Bill Desantis ’82 and John Lyons ’82, guards Tom Hiser ’82 and Kevin Naughton ’83, and center Jim McKeon ’82.) And that question mark at running back? Turns out balance was the answer. Ritter rushed for 574 yards, Conroy 578, while fullbacks John Weeks ’83 and Kerry Callahan ’83 added nearly 400 yards on the ground, each.

On the other side of the ball, defensive end John Hayes ’82, linebacker Bill Genovese ’82, and cornerback Neal Ringquist ’84 anchored a defense that, after the Williams outing, yielded less than 10 points per game.

As for the coach? No hedging on this one. In what may have been his most masterful and successful season in an illustrious 28-year career, Mickey Heinecken was named the New England Coach of the Year.

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