Holy cross

Sacred Heart football will visit Holy Cross in FCS first round

When Sacred Heart was 2-3 after a loss to Howard on Oct. 2, the defending NEC football champion knew something had to change. A six-game winning streak followed, earning the school the conference title again on Saturday.

The reward for the Pioneers (8-3) is a visit to Patriot League champion Holy Cross (9-2) Saturday at noon at Fitton Field in Worcester, Mass. in the first round of the NCAA FCS playoffs.

The winner gets fifth-seeded Villanova (9-2) on Dec. 4 at 7 p.m.

“This is definitely the game we wanted,” senior linebacker DeAndre Byrd said. “A few of our guys on the team are from Massachusetts. We know guys on Villanova. It’s very close.

It was certainly their most likely game, with the regionalized first round and few teams from the East, especially the North East, vying for places.

Getting there was the hardest part. Star running back Julius Chestnut was injured in the first game of the year and hasn’t returned for the past three weeks.

“I think we had to find our identity. When Julius went down in the first game of the year, everyone panicked, looking around trying to find ‘that guy,’” Pioneers coach Mark Nofri said.

Byrd said the team met after that loss to Howard.

“Some of the captains got together and said if we wanted to get to (Saturday) we had to change,” Byrd said. “I think it was a Sunday at 8 p.m. We were in there for two hours, holding people accountable.”

Nofri said a wide range of players intensified afterward.

It was all about getting another ring, Byrd said, and Saturday’s 38-14 win at LIU clinched the Pioneers’ second conference title in seven months. They had won the NEC title in April with a 34-27 overtime win at Duquesne; the conference exceptionally played a championship game during this pandemic-abbreviated 2020-21 season.

“It’s great for the kids. It’s great for the school and the program,” said Nofri. “Winning in the spring and again in the fall says a lot about the character of the kids and what football means to them.”

Next up is Holy Cross, whose first two wins this season have been at UConn (38-28) and at Yale (20-17 on a last minute basket).

Between those, the Crusaders lost 35-21 to Merrimack. Their other loss was at Harvard, 38-13.

Sacred Heart opened its season with a 21-0 victory over Bucknell, which Holy Cross beat 45-6 on Saturday.

“It’s a great program. Bob (Chesney, the Crusaders coach) did a great job there,” Nofri said. “They have a huge win beating UConn. They have two very good quarterbacks. Their linebacker (Jacob Dobbs) might be the best linebacker in the country. We look forward to the challenge.

mfornabaio@ctpost.com; @fornabaioctp