Fall weekends are special in New England, what with the beautiful foliage, the waves that hug the coast of Bar Harbor, Maine and when there is playoff baseball at Fenway Park in Boston.
But there is an added dimension in the picturesque college town of Durham, the home of the University of New Hampshire and about 15,000 full-time residents.
For 12 years in a row the school’s football team has reached the national playoffs at the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level, with berths in the semifinals in 2013 and 2014 out of the powerful Colonial Athletic Association.
“It is the essence of a midsize city. It is a small town; everything shuts down when fans come to the game,” said Sean McDonnell, the head football coach.
The excitement around the program will take on level that had not been experienced in eight decades when the Wildcats host Holy Cross on Saturday on ASN.
After 80 seasons of football at Cowell Stadium, UNH will christen Wildcat Stadium with its first home game of the season as the No. 24 ranked team in the STATS FCS national poll.
“I think the 10th will be one of those special nights. It should be a fabulous night,” said UNH athletic director Marty Scarano.
“It is a state-of-the-art facility. As you walk through it as an alum, which I am, it is total amazing,” said McDonnell, a 1978 graduate.
Even though returning defensive lineman Jae’Wuan Horton grew up in Virginia, he knows what the game means to the region.
“It is going to be huge. I am blessed to play the first home game here (at Wildcat Stadium). This is a big thing for the whole town of Durham,” Horton said.
UNH averaged 7,303 fans per game in six home dates last season, including a loss to Colgate in the national playoffs. That also included 16,713 for a game against Elon on Oct. 3 that was televised by ASN.
Now a new era is set to begin with new digs.
“It has been in the works for a long time,” said McDonnell, now in his 18th season at UNH. “It started back in 2003 and 2004 but nothing came to fruition. About two years ago it came to a spot where it was the right time, right place for the university.”
With funding in hand McDonnell said the rest of the project went quickly. About 1,000 fans attended a soft opening for a blue-white scrimmage Aug. 25.
McDonnell said it is fitting to have another storied New England program christen Wildcat Stadium, which will seat over 10,000.
Holy Cross head coach Tom Gilmore and McDonnell were part of the same staff at Columbia in the late 1980s and have known each other for years.
The Crusaders come to Durham with standout quarterback Peter Pujals and wideout Brendan Flaherty, who was an All-American last season.
The Crusaders began the season with a 51-24 win on Saturday at Morgan State in Baltimore as Pujals accounted for 307 total yards and two scores.
UNH began the season at San Diego State with a 31-0 loss, also on Sept. 3.
There were many good memories, and playoff games, at Cowell. But not many tears will be shed over leaving that stadium behind.
“It has been called ‘The Dungeon’ for a long time — a brick monstrosity,” Scarano said.
Scarano has worked for five presidents at UNH but he said Mark Huddleston, currently in that role, aided the stadium drive.
“He is really the first one that put a stake in the ground and said we are going to do this,” Scarano said. “We were so confident it would happen.”
Video courtesy CAA Football