Colby College wide receiver Danny Noyes celebrates a touchdown in the 2000 season opener at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Photo provided by Colby College

WATERVILLE — It was rare for the Colby College football team to beat Williams College at Williams. But as the Mules celebrated a 27-24 victory in the 2000 season opener in Williamstown, Massachusetts, they knew two things.

One, the victory was proof the offseason work was paying off. Two, the victory wasn’t an aberration.

“We did it the right way. We put in the work,” said Mark D’Ambrosio, a co-captain and strong safety on Colby’s 2000 football team. “Everyone wants to be a football player on Saturday afternoon in the fall. But how about when it’s 6 a.m. in March, and you have to walk through the snow to a running workout?”

Prior to the 2000 season, the New England Small College Athletic Conference announced it would crown a football champion for the first time in conference history. Colby was coming off a 3-5 season, and few considered it a contender. The season-opening win at Williams raised some eyebrows in the league. A 28-21 victory over powerful Middlebury  — which did not allow a touchdown the rest of the season — in the following week cemented Colby as a contender.

The Mules went 7-1 that fall, earning their lone NESCAC football championship in program history. The title-winning season is one of the most celebrated in the history of the storied program, which dates to the late 19th century. It also stands out because the Mules have long struggled to consistently field winning teams on the gridiron, particularly of late.

Colby is 54-87 in the 19 seasons since the magical 2000 campaign, with its last winning season coming in 2005, when it also went 7-1.

Twenty years after that historic season, members of the team and then-head coach Tom Austin reflected on their accomplishment.

“I remember the team had a tremendous offseason. That offseason was different. There was accountability and camaraderie,” said Danny Noyes, a junior wide receiver in 2000.

The Colby College football team competes against rival Bowdoin during the 2000 season. Photo provided by Colby College

Often, juniors at Colby would spend the spring semester studying abroad. But in 2000, the soon-to-be seniors all chose to stay on the Waterville campus for the semester, setting the tone for offseason workouts.

“Mark and Drew (Johnson, a linebacker and the team’s other captain) get a lot of credit for that. Now that I’ve been coaching a while, I see they did a really good job,” said Jared Beers, a senior cornerback in 2000 who is now the cross country coach at Colby.

The Mules went 3-5 in 1999, but they pointed to close losses, 20-17 to Bates and 27-26 to Tufts, as motivation. With a little more work, those losses could become victories. Austin and his coaching staff noticed the offseason effort, too.

“Each team has its own personality. Our senior leaders that season were superb. Their freshman year, they were 0-8, but they had some ingredient that made them all work together,” said Austin, who retired from Colby following the 2003 season. “They really coached the team. We were just adjunct.”

Austin and his staff put in the offseason work, too. Austin and offensive coordinator Ed Mestieri visited the University of New Hampshire to  learn the innovative spread offense run by the Wildcats then-offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, who went on coach at the University of Oregon before NFL stints as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. Kelly is now head coach at UCLA. Twenty years ago, Kelly was turning UNH into a Football Championship Subdivision offensive power. In assessing the athletes returning to his offense, Austin felt the Mules could run the spread with success.

“Now everybody has four receiver sets. Back then, you didn’t see it,” said Noyes, who is now Colby’s associate athletic director of communications and digital strategy.

In the program, Noyes was listed as a wide receiver. On the field, he did a little of everything, and often provided a spark the Mules needed. Noyes earned first team all-conference honors with 54 catches for 872 yards, then a NESCAC record, with five touchdowns. Noyes also had 57 carries for 386 yards and three touchdowns. He was also factor on special teams.

Sophomore quarterback Pat Conley emerged in 2000, his first season as the Mules starter. Conley also earned first team all-NESCAC honors, throwing for 1,996 yards — then a NESCAC record —  and 14 touchdowns.

“We didn’t know how good Pat would be. He was able to handle that pressure very well,” Noyes said. “If you could deliver the ball on time, Tom Austin wanted you at quarterback.”

Added Austin: “We knew (Conley) had some real good qualities, and it all emerged. He showed great leadership.”

Practicing against the potent offense every day made the Colby defense better. They had to be great at practice, said D’Ambrosio and Beers.

“You line up one-on-one all the time in practice against Danny Noyes, it’s challenging,” Beers said.

B.L. Lippert, Cony’s head football coach, was a freshman backup quarterback on the team. He quickly realized his first college season would be special when he saw the joy on the faces of his teammates and coaches after the win at Williams. Later in the season, a misstep on his part made Lippert appreciate the leadership of the team. The Mules got together as a team on the Friday nights before a home game. Lippert skipped a gathering to watch Cony play at Skowhegan.

The Colby College football team finished a surprising 7-1 in 2000, winning its first and only New England Small College Athletic Conference championship. Photo provided by Colby College

The next morning, as players arrived to the locker room, D’Ambrosio — who also was named first team all-NESCAC — pulled Lippert aside and asked the freshman quarterback where he had been the night before. Lippert told him.

“He asked me, ‘Do you play for Cony or do you play for Colby?’ From then on I was all in. Those seniors set the standard of excellence. You didn’t dare to mess up,” Lippert said.

The season’s only hiccup came in Week 4, a 28-14 loss at Amherst. The Mules closed the season with four consecutive wins. A 14-0 win at Bates in Week 6 put the Colby-Bates-Bowdoin crown within reach. Two weeks later, Colby beat Bowdoin 34-7 to clinch their first CBB crown since 1996 and NESCAC championship. Noyes touched the ball 23 times for 232 of Colby’s 440 total yards in the win over the Polar Bears.

“We threw an interception for a touchdown on our first pass, but we settled down,” Noyes said.

To Austin, the 2000 season was the result of a few factors.

“It was one of those years, you had good health and everyone worked together,” Austin said.

In 2005, the Mules went 7-1 once again, finishing second in the NESCAC to undefeated Trinity. The 2000 season is still the gold standard at Colby.

“Our senior class was really close. We’ve always remained in touch,” D’Ambrosio said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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