CHESTER – Adam Oldrati was reminded quickly what was missing for so many in the Widener University community for nearly two years. The Pride’s 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the silence at Leslie C. Quick Jr. Stadium during the last year was eerie.
On Saturday, in Widener’s first home game in 671 days, the resounding cheers of fans was as welcoming as any sound he can remember.
“It feels different, especially when you’re around campus,” Oldrati said. “There are football games again and it’s just a great feeling to back.”
Oldrati had one of the biggest plays of the day in Widener’s 34-27 victory over Hampden-Sydney. Teammate Mario Scotese sacked Hampden quarterback Tanner Bernard, forcing a fumble that Oldrati scooped up. The junior defensive end returned it to the Hampden-Sydney 3-yard line.
Two plays later, Widener quarterback Sean Mullarkey found reigning Middle Atlantic Conference player of the year and 2019 D-III All-American wide receiver James Gillespie, who made a diving, one-handed touchdown grab to tie the game in the opening half.
Gillespie, who had 1,326 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2019, had his parents and younger brother, Collin, the Villanova point guard, in the stands watching his return to the home field. Even as a fifth-year senior with 35 career games to his name, the renewed sense of life throughout the stadium brought good nerves he had longed for.
“Ultimately, this time around you got to feel those butterflies again and get out in front of the home crowd,” Gillespie said. “All of that was set in motion this week and there was a sense of excitement coming in. We came out with so much energy and it felt like we were back in 2019.”
Nerves were certainly at play to start the game as Widener’s special teams appeared out of sorts and Hampden-Sydney returned the opening kickoff deep into Widener territory. The defense responded as Mike Pawlowski sacked Bernard on third down. On the ensuing play, the Pride (2-0) blocked a field goal and Michael Schoenleber returned it to the Tigers’ 45 in a play that ignited the Widener faithful.
Head coach Mike Barainyak is only in his second season but he helped keep the Pride focused through the pandemic, especially when it came time to finally return to the field for spring practice. The Chester community has embraced him and Saturday was indicative of what was missed over the last year.
“It means everything,” Barainyak said. “Chester is our home. When you have people that come out and support you like this, it drives you.”
The Pride crowd was a little rusty and public address announcer Bryan Ramona kept them engaged, particularly when he pleaded to have them join him in screaming, “And that’s another Widener first down!” At kickoff, few fans were responsive but when Widener needed a lift, they delivered the volume.
With Hampden-Sydney inching back into it, Widener responded with an emphatic drive as Triston Harris led the offense to five first downs and finished it with a quarterback sneak from a yard out to push the lead to 28-20 with 4 minutes, 12 seconds left to play.
The crowd’s reaction was the moment Gillespie knew the game was in hand.
“Today was the most electric that I’ve seen it for a home opener since I’ve been here, mostly because everybody missed it,” Gillespie said. “It really helped to our advantage because we needed them for a lot of those drives late. They got on their feet and cheered. They helped us win.”
The roaring applause followed by the playing of the school’s fight song was a staunch reminder of everything Barainyak and the community had missed for close to two years.
“It gives them a sense of normalcy where they know every day they have practice and at the end of every week they have a game,” Barainyak said. “It gives them a sense of purpose. Even though a lot of guys go on to do great things, if you asked them now they would say they’re football players. That’s their identity. To have that back, it’s special to our guys.”