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Allen Lessels' UNH Notebook: Hard work paid off for UNH coaches

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 14. 2013 8:07PM

HAMMOND, La. -- John Lyons came up from his job as an assistant coach at the University of Pennsylvania and Sean McDonnell arrived from Hamilton College.

Steve Stetson, a product of Laconia High School and Dartmouth College, was the head coach and brought Lyons and McDonnell, who had worked with him at Hamilton, in to join his staff at Boston University in 1985.

The moves started a long relationship between Lyons and McDonnell.

They worked together for three years with Stetson, then went their separate ways, but always stayed in touch and had great respect for the job the other was doing.

Three years ago, McDonnell, well into a successful tenure at the University of New Hampshire, had an opening and called his old buddy, who was coaching at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden after a stint at Dartmouth and then having spent time with NFL Europe while at KUA.

It was a no-brainer.

"If I was going to go back into college coaching I wanted to work for somebody I knew and that I trusted and I wanted to go to a good football program in a good league," Lyons said.

UNH passed muster on all counts.

The reunion is working out quite well.

McDonnell has been the constant in Durham and has his team back in the FCS playoffs for a best-in-the-nation 10th straight year.

With Lyons as defensive coordinator and the innovative Ryan Carty - a quarterback and captain at Delaware in his senior year in 2006 - in his second year as offensive coordinator, UNH had already made a bit of playoff history going into Saturday night's quarterfinal game at Southeastern Louisiana.

The Wildcats beat Lafayette (45-7) and Maine (41-27) the last two weeks to give them two wins in one tournament for the first time.

Best of all, UNH, long known for its explosive offense, revamped its defense in the offseason and entered the tournament playing perhaps the best on that side of the ball it has played in any of its playoff seasons.

It hasn't always been a smooth road to a better defense.

This year's trip to the quarterfinals had plenty of bumps, too, and, given the adversity UNH has dealt with along the way, may well represent McDonnell's best coaching job to date.

The Wildcats jumped in front early in an Oct. 5 game at Towson, but then gave up 41 points over the next two quarters and lost, 44-28.

UNH fell to 1-3 for the season and all of a sudden McDonnell and his staff had more to worry about than making the playoffs again.

"This game's funny, man," Lyons said. "You're sitting there like that at 1-3 and it can go either way. And it can go south in a hurry."

McDonnell gives a lot of credit to the players, and especially the seniors led by Seamus O'Neill, the left tackle out of Manchester Central, running back Chris Setian and defensive back Manny Asam, for getting the team together and assuring the run of playoff seasons continued.

"They took it to heart that this was going to be the team that maybe didn't make it, that broke the playoff streak," McDonnell said. "The seniors didn't want any part of that."

Lyons credits the seniors, the rest of the players and McDonnell, too.

"You've got to be able to handle that," Lyons said. "You've got to be careful. If you really lose your mind, you can lose your team. It's a fine line. You have to correct the mistakes you're making, but at the same time you've got to build their confidence level, too, for them to be able to go out and believe that they can win rather than just hoping they're going to win."

The Wildcats started to play better.

They held onto the ball on offense. Their young defenders got a better grasp of and embraced a defense that changed up some coverage assignments, made things a little simpler overall and called for a more aggressive style.

The defense made some key stops and the offense had a huge last-minute touchdown drive and a two-point conversion to beat Villanova and the confidence grew and then grew some more.

"You look at it and these guys were 1-3 and now we're one of eight teams left playing in the country," Lyons said. "That's a helluva turnaround. I think it's a combination. I think Sean deserves a lot of credit, as do the players."

To make the playoffs 10 straight years, to rally from a 1-3 start and to win a couple of playoff games, there's plenty of credit to go around.

Lyons and his guys on the defensive staff, Jon Shelton with the defensive ends, Chris Van Horn with defensive tackles, Art Link with linebackers and Scott James with safeties, deserve their share.

So, too, do Carty and Brian Barbato with tight ends, Alex Miller with the offensive line, Michael Ferzoco with running backs and Ricky Santos with wide receivers.

McDonnell, completing his 15th season, oversees it all.

"I'm proud of this team, really proud of them," McDonnell said. "Out of all the teams we've had here, only a couple of them have done something close to this. It's a real credit to their resiliency. It's not a lot of fun when you're 1-3."

It is a lot of fun when you rebound from that start, though, and you're back in the playoffs once again.