Expectations High As Football Opens '03 Camp
, Augst 17, 2003--The 2003 season marks Springfield College’s final campaign in the Freedom Football Conference (FFC). The Pride, which has won or shared four FFC championships since joining the league in 1995, has all the necessary parts in place to make a run at a fifth and final title.
“Our goal is to win the championship every year, but it means a little more in the last season of the FFC,” explained head coach Mike DeLong, who will lead the Pride into the Empire 8 Football Conference beginning in 2004.
Times have been good for DeLong, who enters his 20th season as head coach at his alma mater. He guided SC to its third FFC title and NCAA Division III Tournament appearance in five seasons in 2002. The Pride rolled to a 6-0 mark in league play, a No. 20 national ranking and its third national rushing title since 1999.
SC returns its six leading rushers from Division III’s top ground attack, which cranked out 356.7 yards-per-game last season. Juniors Michael Judge and Ryan Sylvia, who shared the quarterback duties last season, combined for nearly 1,800 yards of total offense and 27 touchdowns. Junior all-conference tailback Kevin Domurat averaged 9.0 yards-per-carry, the second-best average in SC history, and bruising fullback Tim Lutgens, also a junior, piled up 661 yards and six touchdowns. Senior Dustin Grosso and junior Will Davis, both starters who had their seasons abruptly ended by injuries, are healthy.
SC’s offense, however, is far from just a potent running game. At split end, senior captain Farrand Violette caught four touchdown passes and averaged 41.2 yards-per-catch. Electrifying split end/halfback Luke Quigley, a senior who missed the entire ‘02 season with an injury, was an all-New England selection as a junior. Senior place-kicker Greg Switaj, a first-team All-American, was one of the nation’s top scoring kickers.
Seven starters return from a relentless defense that ranked at the top of the FFC in scoring defense (17.5 ppg) and rushing defense (117.9 ypg). DeLong is counting on senior captains Jesse Baker, Jason MacDonald, and Ryan Santo to be the standard bearers for the 2003 squad. Their veteran presence will be critical in navigating a difficult month of September that includes three road games. All-conference junior linebacker Justin Fletcher, one of the hardest hitters in the league, led the FFC in forced fumbles (three). Senior cornerback Chris Teel and junior all-conference free safety Jeremiah Goodnow ranked sixth and ninth, respectively, in the FFC in interceptions.
DeLong and his staff must figure out how to minimize the effect of replacing the entire offensive line.
“We did lose a lot on the offensive front,” DeLong admitted, “but we have a lot of experience in two critical areas: the offensive backfield and the defensive secondary. That is where big plays are made and big plays are prevented.”
The Pride was simply an awesome offensive machine in ‘02. Not only did SC possess the Division III’s best running game, it ranked 22nd nationally in scoring (36.5 points-per-game). SC eclipsed the 40-point mark on five occasions, and scored over 60 points twice. The Pride also registered two of the three-highest single-game rushing performances in Division III, piling up 586 yards against Union (Nov. 16) and 553 vs. Salve Regina (Sept. 6). Thirty rushing or passing plays went for 30-yards-or-more, and SC was remarkably efficient in the red zone, scoring on 24 of 28 trips (85.7 percent).
The offense starts with quarterbacks Judge and Sylvia, who put their egos aside and led the team to an NCAA Tournament berth. The juniors, who rotated every three series for the entire season, both ranked among the FFC’s leaders in rushing, total offense, scoring and pass efficiency.
“We have two very experienced quarterbacks who will compete again this season,” DeLong said. “Both do a number of things very well.”
Their numbers were nearly identical. Judge rushed for 625 yards and eight touchdowns, and Sylvia had 600 yards rushing and eight scores. Judge threw for six touchdowns and was picked off just once, and Sylvia had five touchdowns passes and threw only one interception.
While some coaches shy away from a two-quarterback system, DeLong feels that it might be the best fit for SC’s multiple-option scheme.
‘“I have no qualms about rotating during the game. In this type of offense, the quarterbacks and fullbacks take a lot of punishment, so I think we were able to save Ryan and Mike physically last season. And the competition is good. It keeps practice focused and keeps everyone going.”
Brandon Hinman and Damian Gunningsmith are promising sophomore signal-callers.
In addition to quarterback, offensive coordinator Mike Cerasuolo has numerous options at the fullback and halfback spots, where the Pride is loaded.
Junior Kevin Domurat, a second-team all-FFC choice in ’02, rushed for 100-plus yards four times, including the final three regular-season contests, and scored six touchdowns.
“Kevin is as fine a halfback as we’ve ever had here,” DeLong said. “He can run, he can catch, and he can block. He’s got the whole package.”
As impressive as Domurat is, there will be competition at halfback. Senior Dustin Grosso, who injured his knee in a 64-14 win over Coast Guard (Sept. 28), averaged 9.4 yards per carry in the first three games of ’02.
Senior Luke Quigley, who spent last season on the sideline, is a wild card. A two-year starter at split end and one of the best return specialists in Division III, Quigley could get some repetitions at halfback.
“We’ll give Luke a look at running back because he’s proven what he can do at split end,” DeLong said. “Wherever he ends up, we’ll figure out a way to get the ball in his hands.”
Junior Will Davis, who was one of the conference’s top ground-gainers last season, is a versatile talent who has played halfback and fullback. Seniors Craig Belanger, who averaged 5.5 yards-per-carry last season before breaking his hand, D.J. Bruni, Nate Ingram and Dave Pardue, along with talented sophomore Aaron Kennedy, will all contribute.
“It’s a deep and impressive group. Domurat, Grosso and Davis are all very explosive backs who can make a big play,” DeLong explained. “And all Quigley lacks is experience in the backfield.”
The group at fullback is equally impressive. Junior Tim Lutgens led SC in rushing with 661 yards and averaged 7.0 yards-per-carry. He broke the 100-yard mark three times, and had five TD runs of 25-yards-or-more. Lutgens replaced an injured Will Davis in the regular-season finale, a 55-27 win over Union (Nov. 16), and had 124 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s a guy who just gets it done,” DeLong said of Lutgens. “He’s deceptive, shifty and durable. That’s a nice combination.”
Davis, a junior, ranked fifth on the team in rushing with 467 yards despite playing in only eight games. He was named FFC Offensive Player of the Week after totaling 145 yards and two TDs against Salve Regina (Sept. 6).
“Will gives us options,” DeLong said. “He can play fullback or halfback, and can run inside or outside. He’s a very good player.”
Rugged Mike Fiscella, a 6-3, 215-pound sophomore who averaged 9.4 yards-per-carry in limited action in ’02, has “a tremendous future,” according to DeLong. Another sophomore, Shawn McMillan, could see time at fullback but will most likely end up on the other side of the ball.
While SC will miss all-conference pick Jay Curtis, who averaged a school-record 26.4 yards-per-catch in his career, the Pride remains deep at split end. And don’t underestimate the quick-strike potential of the passing game.
“Our main goal is to run the football effectively,” DeLong explained. “But, of our 24 receptions, 11 went for touchdowns. That’s amazing.”
Next in line to take over Curtis’ role of playmaker is senior Farrand Violette. Violette, a team captain, caught four balls last season, all for touchdowns, and averaged 41.2 yards-per-catch.
“Farrand possesses great speed, and he is an aggressive blocker,” DeLong said. “He should have a great season.”
Moving into a starting spot is dependable junior Mike Grendal.
“Mike has a lot of ability, and, even though he did not catch a lot of balls last season, he got a lot of experience,” DeLong said.
Quigley could be one of the best split ends in the region if the coaching staff decides to utilize him there. A two-year starter at that spot, Quigley has amassed over 1,500 all-purpose yards in his career.
Senior Jackson Browne and sophomore Richard Von Voight could also see time.
The most notable challenge for the Pride will be rebuilding an offensive line that graduated five starters, including third-team All-American guard Andrew MacFadyen and all-region center Nick Asermelly. All positions are basically “up for grabs,” according to DeLong, which will make for a very spirited preseason camp for this hungry group dominated by juniors and sophomores.
“The talent on the line is there, but we are short on experience,” DeLong explained. “What we return at the skill positions should allow us to be a little more patient than normal.”
Junior Devon Robinson and sophomore Dan Hazen will battle for starting nod at left tackle. Robinson saw some action in a reserve role in ’02, while Hazen is a two-sport athlete who wrestles following the football season.
At left guard, sophomore Marcello Mancini seems to have the inside track, with classmate Ryan Curran pushing for time.
The emergence of a front-line center is critical. Junior Donald Marini is the leading contender, and sophomore Brendan Symnasky will also get an opportunity.
“They are both strong, physical players,” DeLong said, “Marini’s playing time last season is a benefit, and Symansky is a strong, hard-working individual.”
On the right side, junior Alex Longinatti and sophomore James Rostick will compete at guard. At tackle, junior Brian Dewey, who moves from tight end, should earn the starting spot. Jason Beneguche, a raw but promising sophomore, is developing into a fine lineman.
Junior Luis Conte is penciled in at tight end. Conti saw some action in ’02 as an understudy to three-year starter Jeff Barry and Dewey.
SC’s vaunted running game got the headlines, but it’s the defense that spurred the Pride to its fourth conference crown in ’02.
“People tend to overlook the fact that we’ve had a nationally ranked defense,” DeLong stated.
The offense was not the only unit to employ the big play. Coordinator Jack Holik’s 3-4 defense recorded five returns of at least 30 yards, and scored three touchdowns. The Pride, which recorded two shutouts for the first time in 35 seasons, ranked 14th nationally in pass efficiency defense (86.3) and 22nd in total defense (253.5 yards-per-game).
Although seven starters return, competition for time will be fierce, especially at the end and linebacker spots.
“We are going to be very strong defensively. The speed of the front seven is exceptional,” DeLong said. “Look at the defensive ends. They are all very athletic players who are excellent edge rushers.”
One of those excellent edge rushers is senior captain Jason MacDonald, who was a monster last season. He registered nine tackles-for-loss and six sacks. MacDonald was the ECAC Northeast region and FFC Defensive Player of the Week (Nov. 17) after making nine tackles and three sacks versus Union. Junior Curtis Schmidt moves from outside linebacker to end. A regular last season, he played in nine games and ranked 14th on the Pride in tackles (19). At the other end, sophomores Shawn McMillan and Nick Burdett both look ready to show that they can assume a starting role.
Junior defensive tackle Brian McLellan proved himself as an impenetrable interior lineman in ’02. He totaled 35 tackles, including nine tackles-for-loss and three sacks, and recovered two fumbles. Senior Brian Petrosky, who made 20 stops and four tackles-for-loss in ‘01, returns after sitting out last season. Senior Tom Attanasio could play on the defensive or offensive lines. Burdett may see time at nose tackle, as well.
The strength up the middle continues at both inside linebacker positions. Senior captain Jesse Baker returns after missing all but two games last season with an injury. An all-conference selection in ’01, his career numbers are staggering: 231 tackles (ninth all-time at SC), 21 tackles-for-loss and seven interceptions. Junior Brett Cardillo (seven tackles in ‘02) is a very capable reserve.
Junior Justin Fletcher, an all-FFC selection in ’02, is a strong candidate at the other inside spot. Fletcher, who started eight games, finished third on the Pride with 51 tackles, including eight tackles-for-loss, and forced three fumbles. Sophomore R. J. Perkins, who recorded 28 tackles, four tackles-for-loss and one sack, and junior Michael Clark, who is fully recovered from an injury, will contend for time on the inside and outside.
Senior Ryan Santo is also fully recovered from an injury suffered in the first quarter of the ’02 season-opener. A three-year starter at strong safety, Santo is penciled in at outside linebacker. He totaled 76 tackles and five interceptions in the 2000 and ’01 campaigns.
“Ryan’s a very versatile player who is going to help us wherever he ends up,” DeLong said. “What happened to him last season was very disappointing, especially after he had worked so hard to prepare for what would have been a great season for him.”
If Santo ends up in the secondary, Perkins or Clark will vie for the starting nod.
Sophomore Mark Bartelini earned his stripes in ’02. A contributor in the front seven during the regular season, he was thrust in the starting line-up at defensive end for the Pride’s NCAA Tournament game. Bartelini responded by racking up five tackles in deplorable field conditions at SUNY Brockport.
Shawn McMillan also figures to see action here. Junior Jason Chew, who made six stops in limited action last season, provides depth.
The Pride is experienced, if not deep, in the secondary. Junior Jeremiah Goodnow, a second-team all-FFC pick at free safety, was one of the team’s top tacklers (31 stops) and pass defenders (three interceptions, three break-ups). Either Santo or Shawn McGowan (seven games played in ’02) will start at strong safety.
The development of senior cornerbacks Chris Teel and Mike Kimmel certainly answered the questions in the secondary that lingered prior to last season. Teel was one of the top cover men in the league. He picked off four passes, broke up eight more and made 23 stops. Kimmel, a spot starter in ’02, finished fifth on the Pride with 43 tackles to go along with four passes defended and one interception. Senior Chris Whidden, who made two interceptions in the win over Union (Nov. 16), and sophomore Mitch Dupuis and Max Edwards, are accomplished reserves.
Senior All-American Greg Switaj, the reigning FFC Special Teams Player of the Year, headlines a veteran group. He led all conference kickers in scoring (6.7 points-per-game) and field goal percentage (90 percent, 9-10).
“Greg’s committed himself to becoming an outstanding kicker,” DeLong said. “He was almost automatic last season.”
Sophomore punter Padric Noonan, who averaged 32.5 yards on 38 punts, was called on less than any other punter in the FFC. His long was a 52-yard blast, and he placed five kicks inside the 20-yard line.
DeLong, who emphasizes creating points on special teams, describes this group of multi-talented return men as “all-star caliber.” Quigley has scored on both a kick-off and a punt. Dupuis, the FFC Rookie of the Week (Sept. 29) after returning two kick-offs for 106 yards vs. Salve Regina, Kimmel and Kennedy are all big-play threats.
Areas of concern include finding a replacement for Asermelly at long snapper.
With numerous all-conference candidates on both sides of the ball, SC is the favorite to capture its fifth league title.
“This is a motivated group that showed its commitment by having a very strong off-season,” DeLong summarized. “We have experience and talent in critical positions, and we have young guys with real potential. The expectations are high.”
There are two potential roadblocks. With six road games, including three of its first four contests, SC’s schedule is not favorable. The offensive line is also a question mark. History shows, however, that DeLong and his staff have been successful retooling that area. SC has produced three All-American offensive linemen since 1998.
“Last season, we were fortunate that we had inexperienced players step up and perform very well in big spots,” he said. “That has to happen again if we are going to get back to the NCAA Tournament.”
“ ‘The Drive For Five,’ ” DeLong concluded, “is what we put on our preseason camp t-shirts. Our goal for the season can’t be any clearer than that.”