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The Roach Inside the origins of Springfield football's triple option offense

By Evan Wheaton

Stone Mannello gets chills.

It’s that time again.

The bleachers are emitting a deafening chorus of cowbells, ringing and rattling above the chants and roaring fans. A circus crowd of spectators congests the edges of the field creating standing room only.

After the punt is received and field position for the offense is established, Mannello trots off the field with his special teams unit. Nearing the sideline, the offensive line passes him as they head out.

The Springfield College football team has just made a big defensive stop in their season-opener at Western New England.

John Cox, a 6-foot 270-pound guard, lumbers over to the line of scrimmage and hunkers down. His presence is mirrored by Chris Eichler, sitting at the same weight with three more inches on him – the two are a forceful size. Nick Bainter grips the ball, fingers clasped around the top at center – he’s a tad undersized.

5-foot nine inches and 245 pounds.

His best friend, Jeremy Lipsky, takes his place at his side.

Tony Valentino and Matt Doyle brace themselves – they’re ready to attack their prey with relentless effort like a raging bull seeing red. Even the tight ends, consisting of Matt Levine, Tanner Jillson, David Mikos, share this intensity, the hunger to get after it.

There’s more of them on the sideline – Sean Foster. Shamar Martin. Andrew Iverson. Sam Nelson. Julien Nunez.

The ball is snapped and the lines collide with thuds, grunts and shoves.

An offensive lineman rears up and, with a mighty effort, pushes his defender backwards. The opposing tackle lands on his back facing upward, staring at the sky above.

He looks like an upside-down cockroach.

***

Nov. 11, 2017.

A first-year Mannello sits among his teammates in the locker room as head coach Mike Cerasuolo quiets everyone down to address them alongside defensive coordinator Jack Holik.

It’s Friday – the day before a game against MIT, which the Pride ultimately win, 43-7 to cap off an undefeated regular season.

The seniors would be honored later that night, with the ceremonial burning of the shoe, a tradition dating back to 1946.

“Everything that we’re going to teach you has been learned a long time ago and it's been passed down generation after generation,” Cerasuolo says to his team. “Our future is our history.”

Today is about looking back in the history books and seeing where today’s football program came from.

Cerasuolo gives Holik the floor, where he introduces an old face. They have a special guest speaker today, and one that Mannello is more than familiar with.

“Outside Stone, I know him probably as well as anyone on this campus,” Holik says.

Some players have already had the chance to meet him – Mannello has lived with him his whole life. Mannello’s father, Rich, embraces both Cerasuolo and Holik. Donning a maroon Springfield hoodie, the prolific alum takes command of the room.

“I’m looking at about 120 of you,” Rich says, his voice booming from beneath his gray, bushy mustache. “I’m looking at about 120 stories. You all got one, and they all brought you here for a reason. If you have to try to explain that to somebody, they don’t get it.”

Rich Mannello addressing the football team

He’s talking about the seniors, worrying about tomorrow when they should capture the moment.

“I’m telling you right now, for the rest of your life, a week is not going to go by without you thinking about the guys next to you in this place,” he continues. “And at some point in your life, and it’s going to happen more often than not, you’re going to be backed into a corner.

“And what you did here and what you learned here, and how you fought yourself out of the corner, is how you’re going to get out of that corner next game – that life game.”

He speaks from memories – memories on the battlefield with his comrades, his fellow linemen. Memories of the original members of the Roach.

After all, he is the founder.

“I don’t think 10 days go by without my mind drifting off when I was here and what we shared here.”

Rich holds up a white manual. It has a picture of a red cockroach on the cover with red lettering spelling out, “THE ROACH.”

“As you look at the evolution of the program, there was a time here where the linemen looked like this,” Rich says, raising his hand high above his head.

He spoke of different times. Division II. Different competition. Different setup costs and tuition rates. A whole other landscape for the football program.

Inside that manual are rules and guidelines regarding the offensive line. The original was created during a troubling time for Springfield football.

Springfield was in a place where it tried to do a little bit of everything. The team was utilizing a multitude of formations and schemes to no avail. They weren’t able to compete because they lacked an identity.

After a particularly long night against Southern Connecticut, Rich and then-head coach Mike DeLong sat around the kitchen table and said the same thing.

“We’ve got to do something different.”

They began to look to the triple option. Maybe this style of play held the answers the coaching staff were looking for. From there, everyone was on board with making the change.

“It’s not one guy, it’s the whole group,” Rich says. “We studied it up, learned it in a short period of time, and we went to Northeastern University – they were in the same situation.

“They weren’t getting the top-level I-AA recruits. They had to get the guys like us, the guys that needed some work, that want to go in that room and power-clean.”

On the first day of the following spring ball at 6 a.m., the offense focused on their rushing attack. Upon utilizing their new scheme, the ball was spotted four yards downfield.

They kept going.

And going.

And going.

“We made a decision at that point – here’s what we’re going to do,” Rich says. “We need a center that when we get six to one side, and that six does a shade, he can still mech on that guy and we can still run a loop if we have to.”

They also required the perfect signal caller.

“We need a quarterback that’s tough minded – maybe one of the toughest-minded kids in the building – and if you have to force him to pitch it every now and then, you probably got the right one,” Rich says.

With newfound faith in the triple option, a new identity was created for the program and the Roach was born.

***

Much like Springfield College itself, the Roach has many traditions of its own. Eight minutes down the road from campus is a plaza on the corner of Breckwood Blvd. and Wilbraham road. It’s home to Sophia’s, a well known sports bar that’s popular among Springfield students.

Every Thursday before a game, the Roach will sit at a high table reserved for players and coaches. It’s Fat Night, the perfect time to bulk up by inhaling burgers and wings.

Everyone’s orders are usually called in the night before and prepared the following morning. The food is always ready by the time they arrive at roughly 6:30 p.m.

“All our regulars are like, ‘Oop, the football team is coming,’ because we have all the tables set up,” says Dawn Kelly, a waitress at Sophia’s. “And we love them because everyone is so friendly and we have so many regulars that probably know half the guys now. It’s fun, they bring a fun atmosphere.”

For the past 32 years, this has been the system, as told by the multitude of framed pictures wrapping across the far wall depicting generations upon generations of Roaches. With another old framed Springfield College banner hanging above the archway to the conjoined pizzeria, the institution has left its mark.

Across the room is another table of players – the Larvae, those who haven’t quite made full Roach certification yet. There’s a system of voting in members as well as when reviewing film. Depending on the performance of a lineman, they may be deemed a “full Roach” or a “half Roach,” not to be confused with “Iron Roach” and “King Roach” of course.

Stickers are accumulated on the back of the linemen’s helmets depending on the roaches they’re awarded. Pinning someone down on the ground in a game will garner a full roach, while doing so with the help of another offensive lineman will equate to a half roach.

“First and foremost, a Roach block is when you impose your will on another human being and you put them on their back,” Bainter says. “Their shoulders have to be pinned against the ground, and more likely than not, their feet and arms are flailing in the air.”

Any member that hasn’t missed a rep in-game or practice is deemed an Iron Roach. Whoever dons the most stickers by the end of every week is deemed the King Roach for their efforts.

From handshakes to other players not being allowed in the locker room at certain times, the Roach may seem cult-like, yet there is a method to the madness.

“It’s so that you pay attention to detail, like on the field so it carries over,” Cerasuolo says. “It’s little things that you might think are corny or whatever, but it means a lot to us as a group and I think that’s another thing that makes it special, is that there’s no job too small, there is no little thing too small within the Roach and we expect you to uphold that standard all the time.”

Every Roach member is given a modern copy of the original Roach manual when it was created back in 1986. Cerasuolo, having been a Roach member back in his playing days at Springfield, remembers its contents well.

“There’s a little bit of everything in it. It has the standards that we try to uphold,” Cerasuolo says. “The number one thing is you’re an elite group, act that way.”

It’s more than tradition. It’s more than rules and regulations within the program. It’s life skills that are carried on and off the field.

***

They’ve been likened to the Island of Misfit Toys.

“As we always say, we have a bunch of ‘too’s’ in that group,” Cerasuolo says. “There are guys that are a little bit too small, a little bit too slow, a little bit too fat, but they gave everything they had, and that was the group I played with as well.”

Bainter, an undersized center, has to go above and beyond to make up for his proportions on the field in order to protect his quarterback. Jillson, who transferred in his junior year, didn’t have as much time as traditional four-year student-athletes in the Brotherhood.

Cox has maintained a near-4.0 GPA in the Physical Therapy program while Tony Valentino has hungrily awaited three seasons before becoming a starter.

Every Roach has had to challenge himself every day to be an overachiever.

“It’s all-encompassing, and again, it ties into the goals of the program as far as I want to do things around here and develop people in a better way and they’ll become great players, but first and foremost is developing that person,” Cerasuolo says.

“When we say you’re an elite group, we tend to believe that. There’s not too many offensive lines that sit there and say, ‘that’s an elite group of athletes,’ because that’s not usually the case. But it’s an elite group of guys because of how they conduct themselves in their effort level.”

That effort level is assessed on Judgement Day.

Beginning with moving chutes uphill for roughly 40-50 minutes, the linemen spend the day working harder than any other day of the year at the discretion of the Roach coach.

From there, they begin live dive – reps of offense and defense on Stagg Field.

“You can imagine at that point we’re like zombies running around just trying to do our best,” Bainter says. “The thing is, yeah you’re tired, but can you still compete? Can you still fight? What are you made of?”

To avoid getting kicked out of practice, the student-athletes can’t get complacent. In their ultimate test of mental and physical toughness, they not only have to pick each other up, they have to overachieve.

“I did judgement day,” Bainter says, “so anything else is pretty easy.”

***

With the build of a linebacker, Mannello is ineligible to be a part of what his father created.

“It’s a little weird because you see something that these kids live by that my dad started,” Mannello says. “And it would be a great thing to be a part of, but I’m obviously just not built for that. But it’s good to see all the kids embody what he started.”

Rich has made multiple visits to Springfield College to check out today’s football program. Roach members never fail to show their excitement towards the coach that started it all.

Even Bainter has stars in his eyes when he sees the founder.

“You swear it’s like he just saw a greater God or something,” Mannello says.

Visits from Rich have lasting effects for the Roach, and the program as a whole. Having such an active alum, as well as one of the more prolific ones that played a paramount role in Springfield College athletics, leaves the team in great spirits.

This is evident of Bainter’s Rich impressions that last for days after the latter leaves – impressions that Mannello finds hysterical.

“It’s really good to see them get to know him because how many groups of people went through without knowing him? The fact that now that I’m here, he kind of comes back around, so it’s cool to see,” Mannello says.

As he gears up to enter his senior year, Mannello is ready to finish his college career with the Brotherhood. He’ll do so with his father’s presence in multiple facets.

His offensive line will run the triple option and carry out their deep-rooted traditions off the field. When he’s out on the gridiron himself, his father’s teachings – both as a parent and a football coach – will give him guidance.

And whenever he gets backed into that corner, whenever life throws its curve balls and gives Mannello adversity, he’ll do just what the Roach does.

He’ll get up and get another.

Created By
Evan Wheaton
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Credits:

Springfield College Athletics, Evan Wheaton, Stone Mannello