The football program is rapidly emerging as a NESCAC powerhouse under Athletic Director and Head Coach Mike Whalen ’83. After back-to-back 7-1 seasons, in addition to a share of the conference crown and a Little Three Title in 2013, the rest of the ’CAC can no longer take the Cardinals lightly.
A season ago, 12 players were named to the All-NESCAC first or second teams, but this year, the Cardinals stepped it up. This year’s season ended in 13 players receiving conference accolades, including two firsts for the football program. Three-year starter and quarterback Jesse Warren ’15 was named Co-Offensive Player of the Year, with Middlebury’s gunslinger Matt Milano sharing the honor. Elsewhere, Captain Jake Bussani ’14, Wesleyan’s all-time leader in interceptions with 18, took home Defensive Player of the Year to go along with his four selections to the First-Team All-NESCAC, cementing his legacy as a sensational Cardinal.
“When you have two players that are recognized as the Player of the Year on their side of the ball, it’s an indication that the rest of the league has a pretty high level of respect for them as outstanding players,” Whalen said. “Wesleyan football has never had these awards before, and it’s great that these are the first two to receive the award. The 13 overall players recognized is a tremendous tribute to the caliber of a team we had this year.”
This is the second straight season that Warren is a part of the prestigious First-Team, and his statistics definitely warrant this honor, especially his league-leading passer rating of 152.56.
“It means a lot, to be honest,” Warren said, when asked about the importance of the award. “It shows how far this team and myself as a player have come since we first stepped on that field as freshmen. Ending the season without a championship was tough, so this award really serves as the bittersweet ending to my career. It is just an honor that I get to share with my family, the Wesleyan community, and every coach and player that has contributed to our success in the last four years.”
The Wesleyan passer was second in the NESCAC in completion percentage, at 65.8 percent; in total yards, with just over 1500; and in yards per game, with 189.1.
“Being a student-athlete in college is such a rewarding achievement,” Warren said. “The memories and bonds I have built with the players and coaches is a once-in-a -lifetime experience. Just playing alongside some of my best friends has to be the best part of every year. As a singular event of the season though, I would say my favorite part of the year was finally getting the win against Trinity on Senior Day. It was great to get that win and fill the void left in our 2013 season.”
Warren did not hesitate to acknowledge the help he received from others throughout his career.
“All my success really belongs to my coaches and teammates,” he said. “It is 100 percent true that football is a team sport. Without the everyday grind of my offensive line, tight ends, wide receivers, and running backs, I would not be able to put up the numbers I have over my career. Their willingness and drive to compete when they don’t always get credit is extraordinary. I wouldn’t be here without them, so this award really goes to all their hard work.”
Bussani led the ’CAC with seven interceptions this season, including two pick-six’s. Bussani also filled up the stats sheet in several other categories.
“After ending last season with a loss to Trinity, I knew I had to come back for a fifth year to get the bad taste out of my mouth,” Bussani said when asked about the award. “This year we were able to get that last win with a good group of senior guys and we were rewarded with 13 All-NESCAC nominations, which is very impressive.”
Bussani forced and recovered a fumble, which helped to clear a 14-year winless drought against Trinity, and ended up with 30 tackles in his final season, pushing his career total to 118.
“My favorite part of the season has to be our shutout at Williams,” Bussani said. “We hadn’t won up there in a long time, but we were so relaxed yet focused during the game, and you could tell we were ready to change that losing streak. It was probably the most fun I’ve had playing football at Wes.”
Whalen said he would miss Bussani both on and off the field.
“I think [I’ll miss] his overall competitive nature,” Whalen said. “He loves to compete: every drill that he does in practice, one on ones, and those kinds of situations; he hates to lose and he hates to get beat. He’s not a vocal guy, so the way he acts and competes was contagious on our team. I could coach in the NESCAC for another 20 years, and I don’t think I will see another player being honored All-NESCAC four times again. It’s really hard to do all four years.”
This is a special senior class that has changed the face of the program by completing unprecedented feats, as attested by the 9 seniors out of the 13 total honored.
Pat DiMase ’15 helped anchor a rock-solid offensive line, and his efforts were applauded with an upgrade from last year’s Second-Team All-NESCAC to a First-Team showing this season. Wide out Jordan Fabien ’15 was another elevation to the First-Team. He finished second in the conference with 64.8 receiving yards per game and 518 total yards, while his six touchdowns were good enough for third best in the NESCAC among wide receivers. Tight end Jon Day ’15 also made the First-Team and ended his Cardinal career with 14 receptions for 169 yards, including being a major red zone target for Warren, hauling in three touchdowns. Midway through the season Lou Stevens ’17 emerged as Wesleyan’s lead back and produced 517 rushing yards on 116 carriers for the second-best running attack in the ’CAC. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark on two separate occasions, including a monster 191-yard effort in the dismantling of Williams.
Along with Bussani on the defensive First-Team are Nik Powers ’16 and Donnie Cimino ’16. Powers’ third straight season being named to the team saw him with 36 tackles, 5.5 of which were for a loss, in addition to four sacks. Another three-time honoree is Cimino, who played shutdown defense from the defensive backfield and posted 30 tackles in his senior campaign. Cimino is also a part of the Second-Team All-NESCAC for his performances in the punt return game.
Named to the Second-Team on offense is wide receiver Josh Hurwitz ’15. Hurwitz was sixth in the conference with 423 receiving yards and four scores, including a 42-yard touchdown catch.
Second-Team defense honorees include defensive lineman Mitch Godfrey ’15, linebacker Alex Daversa-Russo ’16, and defensive back Justin Sanchez ’17. Godfrey had 20 tackles and was tied for fourth on the team with 1.5 sacks. Daversa-Russo was second on the team with three sacks and 56-tackles to go along with a team-high two forced fumbles. Sanchez paced the team with 58 tackles and added three blocked passes.
Kicker Ike Fuchs ’17 was named to the Second-Team All-NESCAC and set four school records, including a 5-for-5 outing against Williams.
Bussani also wanted to take the time to share his award with his teammates.
“I attribute my success at Wesleyan to the teammates that I’ve had the privilege of playing with my five years here,” he said. “When I’m struggling, I know my teammates have my back and if I can’t make a play someone else will. And if my teammates struggle, they know that I have their back as well. As good as Wesleyan’s defense has been in the last four years, it’s no wonder that our team has such good chemistry and camaraderie, and we put each other in position to make big plays. I was fortunate enough to be put in these positions, and I thank those guys for my success.”
Whalen hopes that football’s success will soon lead other Wesleyan sports programs to emulate his team’s methods.
“My philosophy as an athletic director is that football, because of its visibility, is important to be competitive in,” Whalen said. “If your football program is competitive, it transcends to the rest of the department. We already have a number of sports that have and continue to compete at a high level. Our goal is to continue to do that and recruit high-level student athletes to help our teams win. I’m hoping that the success that football has had the past two seasons will help Wesleyan become known as more of an athletic institution, since it’s already a top academic institution. I hope this success will attract other top athletes to look at Wesleyan and come attend the University.”