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Team captain Seamus O'Neill of Manchester, foreground, receives a hug from Jimmy Vailas of Bedford after the "FCS Selection Show" announcement that the Wildcats are returning to the NCAA tournament. (COURTESY)

Tourney bound

Allen Lessels' College Football: Make that 10 straight years for UNH in tournament

DURHAM -- MANNY ASAM could not watch.

The University of New Hampshire senior safety and oft-animated captain stood in the back of a crowded football locker room and looked on as the Selection Show for the FCS tournament began on ESPNU.

He quickly turned away and ducked into his cubicle and shuffled through a stack of photographs, checked his phone and then ducked his head into his jacket.

A good 10 minutes passed and finally ESPNU got to the part of the broadcast that mattered to Wildcat Nation.

"New Hampshire" flashed on the television screen.

The room erupted. Asam bounded out of his locker and off to celebrate with his teammates.

The Wildcats, who lost three of their first four games, are going back to the FCS tournament for the 10th straight season. The streak is the longest in the nation.

"I'm just happy for the kids," said coach Sean McDonnell. "I turned and looked and they were out of their minds. As they should be, because they invest an awful lot in thus stuff, an awful lot of time and effort. I'm glad they're getting rewarded with another opportunity to play."

Even better, the Wildcats get to play at home.

They will play Lafayette, the Patriot League champion on Saturday at noon at Cowell Stadium. It will be the first playoff home game for the Wildcats since they beat Colgate and then lost to Northern Iowa to close out the 2005 season.

"I don't like suspense," Asam said with a laugh a little later.

There was suspense aplenty.

A 44-28 loss at Towson on Oct. 5 dropped the Wildcats to 1-3 and the chances of keeping the playoff streak alive seemed bleak.

But UNH beat Rhode Island, 50-19, and gutted out a last-seconds 29-28 win at home against then-No. 12 Villanova and beat Stony Brook, 31-13, on the road.

The Wildcats stumbled at William & Mary, 17-0 but reeled off wins over No. 22 James Madison, 33-17, and at Albany, 37-20, and then came up with an outstanding performance to take out No. 4 Maine, 24-3, on Saturday at home.

They won six of their last seven and made a heckuva case for themselves.

"It was in someone else's hands and that's never great for anybody," McDonnell said.

In the end, it worked out for the best.

Make that, so far, it's worked out for the best.

"It's not over yet," said senior running back Chris Setian, another of the captains. "Just because we got in doesn't mean anything anymore.

We're 0-0 and we've got to do what we can to extend the season as long as we can."

It starts with Lafayette at home on Saturday. The winner of the UNH-Lafayette game plays at Maine in a second-round game on Dec. 7.

McDonnell said his team won't be looking ahead to a possible rematch with its league rival.

"If they do, shame on all of us," he said.

Lafayette is only 5-6 overall, but tape of its games in the second half of the season and its last game in particular, should get everyone's attention.

The Leopards made a change at quarterback at midseason and went 4-1 in their last five games behind freshman Drew Reed.

They beat Lehigh, 50-28, on Saturday to win the Patriot League and clinch the conference's automatic bid to the playoffs.

Lehigh helped put UNH in its early-season hole when it beat the Wildcats, 34-27, on Sept. 28.

The Wildcats, rallying behind a surging defense, will look for a little payback against the Patriot League.

"The defense has improved tremendously," said Seamus O'Neill, the senior offensive tackle out of Manchester Central and the third UNH captain. "They've been playing extremely well and it helps us. We feed off them and they feed off us. How they stopped the No. 4 team in the nation and held them to three points, it's unbelievable."

The bottom line is, the Wildcats are playing football after Thanksgiving for the 10th straight season.

"The best thing is, we're going back to work," McDonnell said. "We don't have to go out recruiting. We get to play football and coach football and that's what we're doing in November. It's a great thing."

Win another, and they'll be playing in December, too.

alessels@unionleader.com


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