Local players give 3 teams talent, hope for postseason

Sophomore defensive end Robbie Zauck makes a tackle for playoff-bound New Hampshire this season. Zauck, an Ocean City High School graduate, says waiting to find out if New Hampshire would make the 20-team playoff field ‘was definitely nerve-wracking.’

The University of New Hampshire football team sat quietly in its locker room Sunday, entranced by the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs selection show on television.

When the Wildcats saw their name flash onto the screen, they erupted in cheers and an impromptu a cappella version of the White Stripes' stadium anthem "Seven Nation Army."

New Hampshire was among 20 teams selected for the tournament, which crowns an NCAA Division I champion.

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"It was definitely nerve-wracking," New Hampshire's Robbie Zauck, an Ocean City High School graduate, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Zauck is one of a handful of locals in the tournament. Star running back Dominique Williams (Bridgeton) leads Wagner, and Villanova University includes eight Cape-Atlantic League alumni.

"Every day before practice, I think about (CAL pride)," said Zauck, a sophomore defensive end. "That's what you play for, to represent your hometown."

New Hampshire is in the playoffs for the ninth year in a row. Villanova, meanwhile, went 2-9 last season but reached the Final Four each of the previous two years. The Wildcats won the national title in 2009.

Wagner is a newcomer to the playoffs. The Seahawks, who won the NCAA Division III title in 1987, joined the FCS in 1996. They clinched the Northeast Conference title with a 23-17 win over Duquesne last Saturday.

Williams, a junior, said it "took a while" to set in that the Seahawks were going to the playoffs.

"It was a surreal moment (after beating Duquesne)," Williams said in a phone interview Wednesday. "And at the same time it was like, 'We did it.' "

Villanova clinched the Colonial Athletic Association's automatic berth in the tournament with a 41-10 win over Delaware last Saturday.

Villanova is a relatively young team, having started seven sophomores and three freshmen in that game. But the Wildcats also feature several players left over from the Final Four teams.

Norman White, a senior wide receiver and St. Joseph graduate, had one catch as a sophomore in the 2009 championship win over Montana. The following year, he had three catches in a semifinal loss to Eastern Washington. He redshirted last year with a foot injury and was granted a fifth year of eligibility.

"I keep telling (younger teammates) it's just like any other game," White said after practice Tuesday. "The atmosphere's going to be different, but we've got to just treat it like any other game."

While just three years removed from winning the national title, the Wildcats were picked to finish eighth in the CAA's preseason poll. Defensive tackle Antoine Lewis (Mainland Regional) said in the preseason that Villanova would give everyone a "wake-up call," and he was right.

"It feels amazing," White said Tuesday. "A lot of teams didn't respect us coming into this (season), but as soon as the season was over last year, we just got to work. I'm a believer in hard work, and now we're here, in position to make things happen."

Villanova will open at 3 p.m. today at Stony Brook, which is coming off an open week. Wildcats coach Andy Talley, who was named the CAA's Coach of the Year this week, said the key now is to keep his team mentally sharp after a draining season in what is arguably the toughest conference in the FCS.

"I think as a team, the challenging thing in this league back-to-back is to play two really good teams and bring your 'A' game, and we brought the 'A' game against (James Madison two weeks ago) and the 'A' game against Delaware," Talley said Tuesday. "Now you have to bring your 'A' game against a league champion in the playoffs, and in a playoff run. When we've been in (the playoffs in the past), you've got to play an 'A' game every week because you're playing a superior football team that knows how to do everything to win a game."

Williams, whose Seahawks host Colgate at noon today, said the Wagner coaches have said the key is to play the style that got them there. The atmosphere will make that a challenge, with a near-sellout crowd expected in Staten Island, N.Y.

"A lot of teams don't expect us to do anything. And that's cool," said Williams, who writes his hometown's "856" area code on his cleats for every game. "When you feel the confidence on the team and you see how everybody plays, I feel like we can take this thing a lot further than what people expect."

Zauck and New Hampshire have a bye week before playing at Wofford at 2 p.m. next Saturday.

The soonest that any of the local players could face each other would be if Villanova and Wagner both reached the Final Four. New Hampshire would not play either unless they made the national title game.

Of course, none of them ruled that out.

"I'm expecting nothing less than a national championship," said Villanova safety Joe Sarnese, a sophomore out of Holy Spirit.

Notes: White, who has battled several injuries this season, said the latest one, a sprained MCL, is getting better. "I'm definitely fighting through it, but I'm all right," he said. … Villanova has five other locals: Cornerback Craig James (Oakcrest), receiver Kenny Miles (Buena Regional), kickoff specialist Chris Gough (St. Augustine Prep), and offensive linemen Justin Rhinesmith (Middle Township) and Nico D'Angelo (Holy Spirit).

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