You see, 15 and seven correspond to the number of starters returning and starters lost from the 2008 season. At this time last year, the Pride was staring at just four starters returning and 18 lost from the 2007 campaign. And one of those starters lost was record-setting QB Chris Sharpe, the 2006 Melberger Award winner, emblematic of the NCAA Player of the Year in Division III.
One can see how steep the hill was to climb last season. It will be less so this season. Not to say that there will not be many challenges. The coaches within the Empire 8 have indicated they feel that Springfield College will finish fourth in the league standings -- behind Ithaca, St. John Fisher, and Alfred. And, yes, there are some positional concerns. But with 15 starters back, there is cause for hope.
Can the Pride improve upon their 4-6 record of one year ago? That remains to be seen.
Head Coach Mike Delong will be drawing upon his considerable experience as he enters his 26th season at Springfield. It will be his 28th season as a head coach overall, including the two he accrued at Maine Maritime in the early ‘80’s. His troops will once again be seeking the expertise of the winningest active Division III football coach in New England (154 wins, 142 at Springfield).
“We look to compete for a conference championship,” said DeLong, always the optimist. “The odds may be long in some minds, but I think we have an athletic and talented team, one that is much more experienced than a year ago. I think we certainly have a chance to improve upon last year’s record, and hopefully we can surprise some people.”
The Pride will be attempting to keep the momentum going as it finished up with two straight wins to end last season, including what had to be considered an upset of Hartwick College, the 2007 Empire 8 automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament.
Holding the keys to the offense this season is a sophomore at quarterback, Josh Carter. To some, that may sound daunting knowing a sophomore is in charge. But Carter is considered very bright, a quick study, and mobile. And now he possesses the experience with one full season at the helm. For what it’s worth, his arm is considered better than Sharpe’s, which leads one to believe that it is possible that we’ll see more than the 3.3 passes per game that we came to expect in 2006.
Carter started nine of the 10 games played last season. He is the team’s leading returning rusher (766 yards, 5.0 yards per carry) and leading returning scorer (54 points, 9.0 points per game). Expect his 47.4 passing completion percentage to rise from a year back.
Behind Carter, there are a couple of veterans in junior John Schmaltz (he started one game at Husson last season) and senior Tom Bouffard. In addition, there are two promising and quick freshmen in Brian Staub and Nick Moran who may even push Carter for the starting job.
An area of strength is running back. Seven of last season’s eight top rushers return, led by senior fullback Baldwin Cunningham, who ran for 554 yards on just 101 carries in 2008. That’s a 5.5 yards per carry average from the extremely important fullback slot in this multiple option offense. Sophomore Alex Mendez averaged 6.8 yards per carry a year ago. The idea is to keep Mendez healthy. Others in the mix at fullback include sophomore Erik Chiarella and a host of good-looking freshmen.
At halfback, if you saw him run last year, you may very well see him run this year. Senior Jared Livingston (326 yards, 2 TDs, 8.0 yards per carry) and speedy sophomore Mark Safer (288 yards, 6 TDs, 9.6 yards per carry) could very well start. Junior Joe Myhren (227 yards, 2 TDs, 5.5 yards per carry) and senior Anthony Solano (108 yards, 5.7 yards per carry) will almost certainly see plenty of action. Junior Antoine King will also be in the mix, and that does not include several more promising freshmen.
At wide receiver, the starting spot seems to belong to junior Tim Brady, who caught 21 of the 46 passes that were completed last season for 364 yards and four TDs. Senior Jim Steinmetz is right behind Brady. And right behind him are senior Steve Nackley and junior Scott McGrath.
The tight end slot will most likely be taken by senior Sean Meagher, who played some at linebacker last season. Behind Meagher will be either senior Travis Parisi or sophomore Brian White.
One cause for concern on this side of the ball appears to be the lack of experience on the offensive line. Only two of the five starters return. Those two, however, are the highly-respected pair of senior Sean Dowd (6-2, 260) at right tackle and sophomore Tim Tuttle (6-1, 270) at left guard. Moved into the left tackle spot will be junior John Carlson, whose quickness should be an asset.
Also expected to start at the beginning of the season are seniors Nate Chantrill at center and Martin Gaffey at right guard. Senior Jason Bednarzand junior John Barbagallo are also right in line, if they can stay healthy.
Others who will contribute on the line will be sophomores Joe Maroney, Mike Mavropoulos, Matt Dugan, and Connor Devlin. A freshman, Bill Brunner, could see time at center.
While seven starters return on offense, it looks even brighter on defense, where eight starters return. It is on defense where the team’s two captains – Cody Flanigan and Greg Webster -- reside.
Flanigan, an end, will anchor the defensive line, a very experienced unit. The senior is the leading returning tackler from a year ago with 63 stops and eight tackles-for-loss. Others expected to start, or who are at least high on the list of possible starters, include senior John Ward at tackle, junior Chris Kulcsar at end, senior Derrick Weekes at tackle, and sophomore Hendrick Jean at tackle. Ward is a two-year starter and the fifth-leading returning tackler with 35, plus five tackles-for-loss. Kulcsar actually tied with Ward for fifth-leading returning tackler with 35, plus a team-high nine tackles-for-loss.
Others who will contribute are senior Mike Repetto and sophomores Paul Freeman and Brandon Brailsford.
The area where Springfield might be its thinnest in terms of depth is at linebacker. Senior Ken Goodwin is well thought of, but he has been hurt early in each of the past two seasons. He is considered a very good performer. Senior Ryan Gunningsmith could also see plenty of action at an outside position. Junior Anthony Scarpetti, who also wrestles in the winter, will certainly be involved, as will senior Pat Blackford. And sophomore Scott Christy could help if he is healthy. After that, expect to see freshmen fill the bill, led by Matt Pieterse, a well sought-after local product who graduated from Northfield-Mt. Hermon. Justin Cruz and Adrian Gardner are two more freshmen who could help.
From linebacking, let’s move on to the secondary, where all four starters return. We’ll begin with strong safety Webster, a fifth-year senior, and the team’s other co-captain, who is the team’s second-leading returning tackler with 59. He also had 4.5 tackles-for-loss a year ago. Complementing Webster at free safety is experienced senior Jarred Burrell, who had two interceptions last season to go with 45 tackles.
Three returning players shared starting duty last season at the two cornerback positions. They are seniors Corey Spencer and Chris Bush, as well as sophomore Phil Davis. Bush had a team-leading six interceptions, and was among the nation’s leaders in Division III in that category. Davis had two picks, and Spencer one more which went for a 40-yard touchdown against Fitchburg State in the opener. Spencer was not necessarily expected to return as he had suffered ligament damage in a knee. But he has returned, adding depth to what will hopefully be an area of team strength.
Other DB’s who will help include junior Tim Schumacher and sophomore James Kikel. There are also more freshmen who will be in the mix.
Sophomore Giuliano Pizzo, who kicked a 41-yard field goal last season, is the incumbent place-kicker. But he may not have that position locked up. Freshman Ricky Peacock will be in the hunt. Senior Gordie Barr could still handle the kickoff chores. And Barr could very well be the team’s leading candidate at punter. At kickoff return, Burrell averaged 26.5 yards per return with one TD last year, and was among the national leaders. Safer and King could also return kickoffs. At punt return, it could well be Burrell, and possibly Myhren.