Tuesday, August 29, 2017

MACfb News - Stevenson Football Opens Thursday, Plans to Keep Things "One Game at a Time"

Photo courtesy of Stevenson University Sports Information
The Stevenson University football team, in year six as a varsity program, reached heights in 2016 that some programs that have been playing for much longer have yet to achieve.  A conference championship.  An NCAA appearance.  Nine wins for the second straight season.  A consensus first team All-American who earned a tryout with the Minnesota Vikings.

Now, the challenge for the Mustangs is to sustain that success.
Ed Hottle, the only coach the Stevenson program has known, knows that his team needs to continue to operate with the same type of focus if it wants to remain at the top of the heap and remain a perennial contender in Division III football circles, rather than a plucky upstart program.
"For us, it's not about repeating.  It's about turning off noise, focusing on us, and winning one week at a time," said Hottle, who was named the ECAC Division III South and Middle Atlantic Conference Coach of the Year in 2016.
The good news for the Mustangs is that for the first time, the program returns a starting quarterback with a year of experience starting under center.  Junior Dan Williamswas the MAC Offensive Player of the Year last fall after throwing for 2,469 yards and 26 touchdowns, completing 63.5% of his passes and throwing just nine interceptions.
"There's not a whole lot of question marks with Dan," said Hottle. "It makes you feel good when you've got a quarterback who's coming back for his junior year and having had the success he's had."
Williams has an experienced corps of receivers to throw to in seniors Preston AddoDequan Ellison and Devin Salisbury.  Addo, a MAC First Team selection, caught 47 balls for 799 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Salisbury caught a team-high 71 passes for 815 yards and six scores.  Ellison had 34 catches for 442 yards and four touchdowns as the trio were Williams' top three targets a season ago.
"Those guys are together all the time.  They work out, they lived here over the summer," said Hottle.  "That type of continuity has been exciting."
The backfield could be a question mark for Stevenson, with Devonte Williams graduation and junior Jainard Crawley-Lambert coming off an injury after rushing for 516 yards and nine touchdowns last season.  Crawley-Lambert is the lone returning back with extensive game experience, but TJ Massey and Bennett Okoro could vie for time as well.
Protecting Williams is an experienced offensive line.  Nicholas Jachera, a senior, is a two-time MAC All-Conference performer, while juniors Sean Evans and Tyre Maullhad extensive experience last year as well.  Starting tight end Patrick Najmola was also an All-Conference selection last season.
While the offensive puzzle looks fairly settled heading into the season opener, the defense has some giant holes to fill, chief among them the secondary duo of Austin Tennessee and Billy Lewis.  Tennessee was a consensus First Team All-American last season at safety, while Lewis is the program's all-time leader in interceptions with 20. 
Despite those losses, the Stevenson defense should again be stout.  The Mustangs have made defense their calling card, as it has forced one turnover in 44 straight games and had at least one interception in 26 straight contests.  Stevenson posted a pair of shutouts last season, including No. 25 Delaware Valley on Homecoming.
"These guys have learned from some really really good players," said Hottle.  "They haven't gotten maybe as many game minutes as we would have liked, but they're smart kids, they're all good athletes and good people, so they're going to pick it up pretty quick."
Back for a fifth season after suffering an injury moments into the third game of the season last year is linebacker Cory Pietrzyk.  Pietrzyk totaled 89 tackles as a sophomore and followed that up with 82 as a junior, and had 19 in the first two games last season.
Also returning at linebacker are junior Ashton Leschke, sophomore Izaiha Pitts and senior Mike Datu.  Leshcke earned MAC First Team honors last season after recording a team-high 88 tackles in 2016.  Pitts started last season slow but finished with 83 tackles, including double-digit stops in three of the final six games.  Datu totaled 59 tackles in 2016.
The secondary, although inexperienced, is talented.  Junior Daniel Flowe and sophomore Zach May have the most experience amongst returners.  Flowe had 42 tackles and four pass breakups, while May had an interception and 40 tackles.
On the defensive line, junior Brendan Flaherty is the leading returner after posting 29 tackles and 4.5 tackles for a loss in 2016. Senior Chuck Brown has posted 68 tackles over his first three seasons, including 17 last season.  The d-line must make up for the loss of All-Conference performers Austin Meyers and Travis Bonds.  
Stevenson opens the 2017 season with a new foe.  The Mustangs, ranked No. 18 in the D3football.com Top 25, travel west to face Frostburg State, ranked No. 17.  The Bobcats went 10-1 last season and capped the season with an ECAC bowl victory.
"The biggest particular piece of this game would be looking into October and looking at the regional rankings if either team is fortunate enough to get into that scenario," said Hottle.  "Not to take anything away from North Carolina Wesleyan (Stevenson's opening opponent the last four years), but we wanted to strengthen our schedule, and Frostburg was in the same situation, so we were able to work out the dates."
The following week, the Mustangs open their home and MAC schedule on September 9 against King's (Pa.).  The MAC race looks wide open, with three teams, Stevenson, Delaware Valley and Albright, all getting first place preseason votes.  No team has repeated as MAC champion since Delaware Valley had at least a share of the title in four straight seasons from 2008-11.
"The MAC is unique in many respects, in that anyone can beat anyone any given Saturday," said Hottle.  "You look at our loss at home to Wilkes on Senior Day last year, you look at Albright going on the road and losing to LebVal on the last week last year.  In my mind, I don't know that there's ever a big upset.  It's a really hard deal to run the table in the conference."