It’s halftime at McBride Field. The fierce September sun is baking into the stadium’s astroturf and aluminum bleachers, and the 500 fans who’ve come to see Kenyon play in their first football game in 658 days are anxiously awaiting the second-half kickoff.
The Lords are currently losing 10-3 to Benedictine University (Ind.). In many ways, Benedictine’s football program is the antithesis of Kenyon’s. The Eagles are projected to finish third in the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference. They’ve had one losing season since 2009, and, in their last full season before the COVID-19 pandemic, they finished 7-3. The Lords, prior to Head Coach James Rosenbury’s arrival in 2019, had lost 26 games straight and were widely considered the laughingstock of North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) football.
It was an anemic first half for both teams; Kenyon started the game strong with a long, methodical drive deep into the Eagles’ territory, culminating in a field goal from Rocco Danese ’23. From that point on, the Lords’ offense accounted for two three-and-outs and a punt.
It was at this point, huddled together in their locker room in the Lowry Center, that things began to change for the Lords. It wasn’t a major shift in strategy, or a reaction to an unexpected game plan by the Eagles. Instead, it was the fastidious and unrelenting belief in their game plan — that the hard work they had put in was going to pay off.
“I think going into halftime, our players knew that we could compete with them,” Rosenbury said. “We just had to follow the game plan and trust ourselves and trust each other.”
Rosenbury then gave the team a speech.
“Hey, here’s what we’re doing right. Here’s what we’re doing wrong,” he said to them. “If we start doing these things right, we’re gonna have a really good chance to win this football game.”
His words seemed to have registered. The Lords exploded in the second half, led by none other than senior quarterback AJ Allen. Allen’s road to the starting job has been tumultuous — he arrived at Kenyon as a quarterback behind Thomas Merkle ’19, the most statistically prolific signal-caller in the College’s history. Allen then transitioned to tight end his sophomore year, but switched back to quarterback his junior season — a season lost due to COVID-19. Now in his senior year, Allen is the unquestioned starter — and one of two team captains to boot.
“It feels great to be leader on the team, to go through with the men on Saturday, play football [at] the position I felt like I was meant to play,” Allen said. “It feels great that I get to play quarterback again.”
After a Benedictine punt, the ball was again in Allen’s hands. The offense began to click. Allen connected with his receivers and picked up some yards with his legs. Jack Provenza ’23 and Finn Murray ’23 broke off some major runs — the latter scoring a 1-yard rushing touchdown on the 12th play of the drive, tying the game at 10-10.
From that point on, the game became an offensive extravaganza. Benedictine scored on their next possession. Kenyon got the ball back, and promptly scored a 50-yard touchdown on a gorgeous throw down the left sideline to Andrew Schnarre ’23. The sideline erupted with cheers; but no one was more animated in their celebration than Allen.
“It was great,” Allen said of the play. “It just finally felt like it was a culmination of what we had been working for as a team for my four years here, to finally have that culmination event where we hit that big play, something we haven’t always had in the past.”
Schnarre, who finished the game with four receptions for 131 yards and two touchdowns, has emerged as the unquestioned number-one receiving option on the team. I asked Schnarre, who last put on a Kenyon uniform as a first year, about how he felt returning to the playing field.
“There were definitely some nerves coming back after a year break and not having any games,” he said. “But after the first couple plays, you kind of switch back to the game mode and you find your rhythm again. It was just a lot of fun.”
According to Allen, he and Schnarre have been building a rapport since Allen’s sophomore year — Schnarre, a year below Allen, immediately joined the Lords’ second team upon arriving on campus, where Allen was the quarterback.
“When you’re a wide receiver that good, it makes it hard to not have a good connection with him. He’s always open. He’s always finding a play,” Allen said. “He’s really the whole package. His speed definitely is game-changing — but also [his] route running [and] releases. He does everything you ask of a number-one wide receiver.”
Schnarre and Allen connected for another touchdown with just over seven minutes left in the fourth quarter: a 27-yard bullet over the middle of the field to knot the score up at 31-31.
It was at this point that a victory seemed inevitable. Kenyon, the David to Benedictine’s Goliath, had forced the Eagles to punt on fourth and 15, and drove the ball down the field to the Benedictine 19-yard line with less than a minute on the clock. The Lords were on the precipice of victory — all they needed was a field goal to send the Eagles’ packing, and Danese had already converted from 27 yards out. But then, as Danese approached the ball with his right foot, a Benedictine defender broke through the Kenyon offensive line, and with the mere tip of his finger, grazed the ball and sent it off course. The game went to overtime.
The Lords lost quickly and unceremoniously — Benedictine forced a turnover on downs, and then converted a field goal from 33 yards out. There’s no easy way to swallow such a heartbreaking loss, and Rosenbury, after the game, did not sugarcoat the outcome to his team.
“I was honest with them. I told them that wasn’t a game we could have won — that was the game we should have won,” he said. Rosenbury then mentioned three specific moments that were critical in the loss: a fumble on their own goal line (which eventually led to a Benedictine touchdown), a dropped interception by Jimmy Lane ’22 and the blocked field goal.
“If all three of them go differently for us, I think we win that game by a couple scores,” Rosenbury said. “Every moment counts. Every play counts. And I think our guys knew that, but now they truly understand that.”
I asked Rosenbury about his expectations for the rest of the year. He was tempered in much of his response, noting that he and his staff have set a series of realistic goals and expectations for the season.
However, near the end of his answer — after crediting the role the recruiting and strength and conditioning staff have played in developing the team — he paused briefly, and the tone in his voice changed.
“We’re ready to take the NCAC by storm.”
And with Allen, Schnarre and Rosenbury leading the way, they may just be.
The Lords’ next game is against the College of Wooster on Sept. 11 at 1:00 p.m. in Wooster, Ohio.