Fans poured onto the football field at LaValle Stadium Saturday night, rushing past a passive phalanx of security guards more than happy to let the crowd enjoy the excitement of the 41-31 win over Liberty that gave Stony Brook the Big South Conference title and an automatic FCS playoff berth.
There was no holding back any emotions on the day of the most significant achievement in the history of Stony Brook football -- if not the entire intercollegiate athletic program.
Football started in 1969 as a club team. It reached Division III status in 1984 but stalled during a state financial crisis that threatened and then delayed the arrival of LaValle Stadium, which became the impetus for a bigger vision in the sport. It was not unthinkable that without the stadium, football might not have survived. A crowd of 7,896, the third-largest since the stadium opened in 2002, proved there is plenty of support.
Now Stony Brook football stands as one of only 20 teams in the nation to make the post-season tournament. Pairings will be announced Sunday, and Stony Brook has put in a bid to host the game Saturday.
"It's awesome to bring a championship to Stony Brook,'' running back Brock Jackolski said. "I think it's a statement for Stony Brook as an institution. It's a big accomplishment for all of us.''
The school has made NCAA tournaments before, but its major sports have stumbled on bigger stages. Two seasons ago, Stony Brook hosted the NCAA quarterfinals in men's lacrosse and lost by a goal to Virginia when a victory would have yielded a spot in the Final Four. Last season, men's basketball came so close to making the coveted Big Dance but lost by two points to Boston University in the America East Tournament championship game.
Football, which has come so far so fast since starting to award scholarships in 2005, lost to Liberty, 54-28, in 2010 when (because of tiebreakers) a 37-0 loss would have given SBU the FCS bid. Saturday's win in a regular-season game that was tantamount to a championship game was no small accomplishment.
"It's part of the journey,'' athletic director Jim Fiore said. "This is another step for our athletic program . . . I feel good for those kids. We were never picked to win the league. We won eight straight games for the first time in school history.''
All the past disappointment evaporated with the victory over perennial power Liberty, which lifted SBU's Big South record to 19-4. "It's definitely a great way to come out with having all the fans here,'' Miguel Maysonet said. "They were like the 12th man out there. This brings humbleness to Stony Brook University sports. For everybody.''
Coach Chuck Priore thanked everyone he could think of in his news conference. "President [Samuel] Stanley, the administration, our alumni, Jim and his staff for the support they've given us over the journey, ups and downs, peaks and valleys, winning streaks, losing streaks,'' he said. "It's a great, great, great win for all the parties involved over the course of my six years here.''