His eyes focused on the Ivy League, Jake Laux was at the Princeton summer football camp in 2009, trying to make an impression on members of the Tigers’ staff, or any other coach on hand.
Who was interested in the all-conference linebacker and National Merit finalist from Dousman, Wis.?
Chad Martinovich, the incoming coach at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for one.
“When I made my visit during the winter, I said “This is the place for me. This is where I want to be.”
In this, his third season suiting up at Steinbrenner Stadium, fully immersed in his studies as a chemistry major (“Course 5” to those on campus), he is one of the building blocks for a young Engineer program that has clearly turned the corner under Martinovich, who arrived four years ago after a four-year stint as the defensive coordinator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Laux has emerged as one of the premier linebackers in the New England Football Conference, leading the league in tackles (13.1 per game).
Entering Saturday night’s season finale at Endicott, MIT (5-3) has already exceeded its victory total of the previous three seasons combined (four), and locked up its first winning season since 1999.
The Engineers have done so with a roster loaded with freshmen (22), sophomores (22), and juniors (13), with just seven seniors — and just two of them are starters.
And there are plenty of players among them:
■ Brad Goldsberry, a dynamic 5-8, 180-pound sophomore out of Elizabeth, Colo., paces the 16-team NEFC in all-purpose yardage (194.5 yards per game).
■ Classmate Justin Wallace is third in the conference in rushing (97.9 yards per game).
■ Sophomore Peter Williams, one of four quarterbacks on the roster, is third in the NEFC in passing efficiency.
■ Senior Ethan Peterson, a two-time all-conference guard from Rutland, Vt., is one of 15 National Scholar-Athlete recipients — a group including USC quarterback Matt Barkley and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o — who will each receive an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship from the National Football Foundation.
“The interest has grown because we are getting the word out,” said Martinovich, acknowledging that high school coaches from across the country are now calling him to pitch potential recruits.
“We don’t have the recruiting budget of an Ivy school, so it’s a lot of phone or e-mail work.”
The misconception, he said, is that MIT focuses on academics, and nothing else.
“But we want [the students] to take on multiple elements, and excel in all of them,” said Martinovich.
Study the numbers: MIT fields more varsity teams (33) than any other Division 3 school in the country. And a bit under the radar, the entire athletic program is emerging as a formidable force:
■ Off its 29-2 run to the national semifinals last March, Larry Anderson’s men’s basketball squad is No. 1 in the d3hoops.com preseason poll. (The Engineers take on Harvard across the river in an exhibition game on Friday night.)
■ The women’s cross-country program sits atop the national rankings.
■ Engineer teams captured 10 titles in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference in 2011-2012.
When he was hired, Martinovich envisioned building something “pretty special” on the football field.
“It’s the No. 1 university in the world . . . it’s more about selling the football program,” he said.
His pitch received a turbo boost this season in the home finale, Oct. 19, when the Engineers, through a steady drizzle, shocked previously unbeaten Salve Regina, 20-19, at the time the top-ranked D3 program in New England.
With Goldsberry ripping off a 61-yard kickoff return to set up the go-ahead score, the victory “solidified the buy-in factor for the kids,” said Martinovich.
“They know now that we can play with anyone on our schedule.”
Laux recalls “the shock” on the faces of the Seahawk players in the postgame handshake line.
“You go out [on the field], and some of the guys on the other teams will say, ‘It’s just a bunch of nerds, we can push them around,’” Laux said before heading off to a review session Thursday night to prep for a genetics test the next morning. “We’re legit now.”
Peterson called the win “the most memorable of his career.”
“I was really, really happy with how the underclassmen carried themselves,” said the 6-2, 280-pound Peterson, a nuclear engineering and physics major. “No one gave us a shot. But they didn’t buy into it. They said they did it for the seniors. That meant a lot to me personally.
“And next year, they will be far better than this year, and be great in years to come. This is a transition phase. We took our lickings. But this program can be the best team in the conference.”