BY Jim Fenton
EASTON – The streak of failing to achieve a winning record had reached 16 years for the Stonehill College football team.
After going 8-2 in 1996, the Skyhawks were unable to get back above .500, suffering through a winless season in 1999 and winning only one game in two other years.
The program struggled as the Northeast-10 Conference grew larger and more competitive with Stonehill failing to contend.
After gradual improvement since the hiring of head coach Robert Talley in 2007, though, the Skyhawks took a major step forward last season.
Stonehill went 8-3, shared the NE-10 regular-season championship and lost to American International College, 27-17, in the conference title game on Nov. 16.
Picked to finish seventh in the NE-10 preseason poll, the Skyhawks lost only to nationally ranked Bloomsburg University and twice to AIC.
That success Stonehill had a year ago has ramped up expectations for the 2014 season, which begins on Sept. 6 when Bloomsburg visits W.B. Mason Stadium.
Senior All-Region wide receiver Nate Robitaille. (PHOTO BY Bob Blanchard)
"I think everybody's excited,'' said senior captain Brian Harrington of Rockland, who was an All-American honorable mention and an All-New England selection. "We had a little taste of what it's like to be successful.
"It's nice because you don't see people content. They're not happy with just getting to the championship game. It made everybody hungry. We want to get back there again and have a different result.
"That's the mentality and you could see that in winter workouts and even the freshmen coming in. They quickly understood what we're all about right now. It's a pretty good attitude to have.''
Stonehill dropped its opener at Bloomsburg last season, won three games in a row, lost to AIC and put together a five-game winning streak to close out the regular season.
"It was very rewarding,'' said Talley, who was 36-36 in the seven previous seasons. "I think when you get a chance to sit back, you think that the notion when I first got here was it's really hard for those guys to win. In some ways it is because of our academic standards.
"But from the administration on down, everybody has bought in and is supporting us and that's made a huge difference.''
Having the kind of success Stonehill did in 2013 gave Talley something attractive to use while making pitches to recruits last winter.
"It affected recruiting,'' said Talley, who has to replace six starters, including record-setting quarterback Logan Meyer. "Now we're not only able to sell people on the fact we're a great academic institution, but now we're able to say we're a great academic institution that is winning football games.
"It was an easy sell. That made a difference.''
The Skyhawks, who began training camp a week ago today, won't be sneaking up on any opponents this season, not after finishing tied with AIC at the top of the standings.
Senior All-America linebacker Brian Harrington. (PHOTO BY Bob Blanchard)
Stonehill is looking to build on the success it had and keep the program moving forward.
"We have a target on our back because we came in second in the league,'' said wide receiver Nate Robitaille, an All-New England choice who set school records with 91 catches and 1,229 yards. "It's very important (to keep winning), especially since it's my last year. All the seniors, we don't want to be the class that had a good year and then had a drop-off. We want to come back and win out.
"It's like Coach said: A lot of people are saying there are high expectations for us, but at the end of the day, the only thing we can control is what we do. He says to control what we can control.''
Getting back to the NE-10 title game and winning it all is be the next step the Skyhawks would like to take.
"Every day, that's kind of the motivation,'' said Harrington. "You get to the championship game, you get so far, but at the end of the day, we didn't get the 'W' and it left a sour taste in our mouth.
"I think everyone wants to get rid of that, and the only way to get rid of that is go in every week and try to get a win and potentially find ourselves back in that championship game and hopefully eliminate the taste of defeat.''
Said Robitaille: "(Losing the title game) wasn't fun. There's a picture I always go back to of me, (defensive back) Sterry (Codrington) and Brian in a row with our heads down. We can't have that this year. We can't do that.''
Jim Fenton may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JFenton_ent.