It was August 2022 on the lawn of Stagg Field and Travis Gause and Jack Litz could barely stand.
Springfield College freshmen were high school football stars in western Massachusetts at Springfield Central and Agawam the year before, but this was college football coupled with the summer heat and they had yet to adjust.
Gause and Litz were nearing the end of another lengthy preseason workout during their first season with the Pride. All that was missing was a special teams session with the field goal unit.
The duo sat side by side on the offensive line, bowed their heads, looked down the line and watched the long snapper throw the ball back before making proper blocking moves.
They did it over and over again; Listen for the sound of the kicker’s foot hitting the ball and watch it go through the posts before repeating the process.
On one of the final iterations of the session, Gause and Litz both lifted their heads to watch the ball fly through the air, and at the same time they both felt dizzy and fell into each other after a long day.
Before falling to their knees, they grabbed each other’s shoulders to steady themselves and stay off the lawn.
As they both stood up, they looked at each other, shook their heads and laughed.
“I don’t know if I can do that anymore,” they said.
Gause and Litz were two of the top linemen in the area when they were in high school. Both knew each other during this time, but never met officially.
Springfield Central plays in the Valley League and Division I at the state level, while Agawam is a Division III program in the Suburban South League, preventing their paths from ever crossing.
But since that moment at the end of practice during their first college preseason, the two have become good friends.
“That’s exactly when Travis and I bonded,” Litz said.
Gause and Litz are just two of the few former Western Massachusetts stars who became friends while completing their freshman seasons at Springfield College last fall.
Former Pittsfield quarterback Pat Rindfuss played for the Pride last season, along with former Generals wide receiver Louis Rhodes, Minnechaug wide receiver Ryan McConnell and Wahconah running back Jonah Smith.
Aside from Rindfuss and Rhodes, none of the arriving local players knew each other well when they first arrived at Alden Street.
The rigors of daily preseason practice, meetings and sweating together in the weight room all helped bring the group together.
Along with hilarious chats about the times they played each other in high school and who was on the better team.
“They’re constantly ripping each other and sending each other jabs about different things,” said Springfield College head coach Mike Cerasuolo. “Obviously, Travis can make the best of it.”
As a two-time state champion and captain at Springfield Central, Gause can and does talk a lot.
“When we’re all alone, a conversation definitely starts, but they can’t talk bad to me,” Gause said. “I don’t have to explain too much. They have little jokes and stuff, but they kind of know. You choose when it comes to trash talk.”
The sessions got heated, especially during the first preseason, but they always ended with everyone smiling and laughing.
“We like to relive the games and just talk about what happened,” Litz said. “At the end of the day it’s all love and for us it’s all fun and games.”
Rindfuss and Smith both came from Springfield College programs that have one of the best rivalries in western Massachusetts: Pittsfield and Wahconah.
The duo played each other in high school and other youth sports every year while growing up, but never spoke to each other.
Rindfuss threw the ball all over the field for Pittsfield in his senior year with the Generals, while Smith ran wild between tackles for Wahconah and helped lead the program to an appearance at the Division VII State Championship in 2021.
The first official meeting between Rindfuss and Smith took place in the stands at Stagg Field in 2021 when Springfield College beat Catholic University in the NEWMAC championship. A few months later, both announced their commitment to the Pride.
Both in search of roommates, Rindfuss and Smith texted each other regularly in the run-up to their first preseason and eventually decided to move together to Gulick Hall, the team’s closest dorm to the football field.
Despite being a high school rival, Smith has mercifully kept his mouth shut when it comes to discussing Wahconah’s recent winning streak against the Generals with Rindfuss.
“I like Jonah. He’s a good boy,” said Rindfuss. “We always kind of playfully joke with each other about the rivalry and stuff… It was cool.”
All of the local players on the Springfield College football team got involved in the program for a variety of reasons.
Some chose the school’s sports science program, others for the proximity to home, the close-knit culture of the football team, and the school’s general athletic atmosphere.
Springfield College was where the game of basketball was invented, while volleyball was invented just nine miles north in Holyoke. Academically, the most popular majors at the College are Health Services, Kinesiology, Exercise Science and Physical Therapy, all of which are related to the human body.
The college takes education for the whole person seriously, whether it’s in the classroom, the weight room, or the field, and this approach has resonated with new players.
“Being with athletes is so much fun,” says Gause, who studies exercise science. “That makes it competitive because I have a couple of classes that are just about sports… you’re with all the other athletes. … It makes it so you don’t really have excuses because everyone is sore. Everyone is tired.”
School culture, academics and the success of the football program are important issues when recruiting.
Cerasuolo has been Springfield College’s head football coach since 2016, has been on the team’s coaching staff since 2001, and was named the program’s lead recruiter in western Massachusetts five years ago.
Under his leadership, the Pride finished last season with a record of 9-3, won the conference title for the second straight year, and advanced to the second round of the Division III National Championship tournament.
Springfield College has been a contender for the NEWMAC title almost every year since Cerasuolo became head coach. Looking ahead, if the program continues to be strong over the next few years, it will be due to the leadership and play of Western Massachusetts athletes.
“Children who grew up here wanted to leave,” said Cerasuolo. “But once you’re on campus… it’s a different world. … As soon as they put on the same jersey and helmet, it’s like, ‘Okay, we’re all in this together. … All these guys are really good football players and came from really good programs.”
In the five years since Cerasuolo became the leading recruiter in western Massachusetts, the region has produced over a half-dozen Division I college football players, mostly from Springfield Central, and countless players at the Division II and III levels.
With more and more soccer talent coming from the area, there is more competition between colleges and universities in the area for players.
“It may not just be teams (that have improved) but definitely individuals,” Cerasuolo said. “Because of the ability to compete all year round with 7-on-7 and whether it’s skill work on the weekends or whatever, with all the program that’s on now, the guys train all year round about at their craft and getting better.”
Now that Springfield College has more local talent on its roster, some of those players are working to bring other area stars to the team.
Litz was teammates at Agawam with offensive lineman Matt Benard.
Benard was a senior with the Brownies last fall and was a first-team All-Western Mass. selection. During his college recruitment process, he visited Litz at Springfield College overnight.
Between a few Madden games, a visit to the school dining room, and a long chat in Litz’s room, the two chatted about the school and its football team.
When Benard left Alden Street the next day, he was determined to join the Pride.
“He and I kind of fit the description of the Springfield College person,” Litz said. “That’s what mattered. We’re both die-hard athletes, and there’s no better place to go to college than Springfield College for the sport…and being close to home. … This is where we want to be.”