Before the home opening game, Sept. 4, the last time the Muhlenberg football team took the field facing an intercollegiate opponent was the semi-final game, against the North Central College Cardinals, on Dec. 14th, 2019. The Mules went into the game boasting an impressive playoff run, going 3-0 and outscoring their opponents 104-8, until, unfortunately, coming up short against the eventual DIII National Champion Cardinals, 45-14. Between then and this current fall semester, there was one global pandemic, one canceled fall season and one football team anxious to compete again.
The 2021 football team is much different than its 2019 counterpart. Many of the key contributing players on both sides of the ball from the previous team have graduated, leaving some big questions unanswered this season.
However, one major returner is the Mules’ signal-caller Michael Hnatkowsky ‘21, who made the decision to return for one last season. “Being able to play football again was an awesome experience. With all the uncertainty over the past 18 months, there was thought that a lot of us would not be playing football here again. Saturday was a great example of why I decided to come back,” Hnatkowsky said.
Fellow teammate, Ethan Brader ‘23, has also had a lot of time to reflect during the absence from playing football.
“It’s been a long time since I last suited up because of COVID, and it has had a big impact on me in the last year and a half… I was able to coach high school football with my dad and help coach a championship team, as well [as] work on myself and work out to be ready for when we get back to playing football at Muhlenberg,” Brader said.
The Mules produced a strong opening season performance both offensively and defensively versus The College of New Jersey Lions. The offense tallied up 41 points, alongside a defense that held the Lions scoreless throughout the contest resulting in a 41-0 victory.
Brader cites this victory as a good momentum builder heading towards Centennial Conference play. “Dominating TCNJ was huge for us and a good start to the season. Going into Dickinson we have to keep a mindset that it’s the most important game because it is the next game.” Brader said, “We are excited to play Dickinson as it is the next step on our championship climb.”
Another great show was the countless amount of fans in attendance at the game. The student section produced a swarm of football-deprived fans. Dylan De Magistris ‘24 described his first ‘Berg football game saying, “I loved it… Since we weren’t allowed to go the last two semesters, this is the first time I’ve been at a Muhlenberg sporting event, and [to] come together as a class and participate, I was very hyped.” The diverse backgrounds of community members in attendance was something that De Magistris also noted, “People at Muhlenberg actually do care about the community. Not everybody is friends with people on the football team, but still they’re coming out to support the team and athletics, which I think is awesome being on the track team as well.”
Grace Oddo ‘22, like many other upperclassmen, is more than thrilled to cheer in the stands again, “It’s the year of last. So I woke up today knowing that I need to go to my last Muhlenberg home opener.”
For Hnatkowsky, seeing students, family and community members in the stands is relieving. “Having fans back was awesome. It felt like we were back to some normalcy prior to COVID. I think it really helps our guys when there are fans and last Saturday [Sept. 4] was an awesome game day experience.” A win like this was also vital to give the new contributing players some needed experience and confidence heading into a grueling Centennial Conference play, “Every team is very talented and we will be tested every week. I think for our younger guys they will continue to get better every week during practice and in the film room. I am very excited for this weekend and ready to get started in conference play,” Hnatkowsky added.
Then, last Saturday, Sept. 11, the Mules traveled to Carlisle to face the Dickinson College Red Devils. After another solid victory 34-13, the Mules move to 2-0 and prepare for home play this Saturday, Sept. 18, against the Ursinus College Bears.