You see, Chris Sharpe, two-sport All-American that he was, the school’s Top Male Athlete two years running, and the 2006 Melberger Award winner, symbolic of the Division III Player of the Year, has graduated. Not only has he finished his studies, so have many others. In fact, Springfield returns only six starters from the 2007 squad all told, and two of those on that short list are the punter and the placekicker.
With likely the youngest team he has ever had listening to his every word, Head Coach Mike Delong will be drawing upon all of his experience as he enters his 25th season stalking the sidelines for Springfield. It will be his 27th season as a head coach overall, including the two he had at Maine Maritime in the early ‘80’s. His troops will be seeking the expertise of the winningest active Division III football coach in New England (150 wins, 138 at Springfield).
After finishing the 2007 campaign with a 4-6 record and finishing fifth in the conference with a 2-4 record against Empire 8 opponents, as mentioned, the Pride returns just four starters on offense and defense this season. Yet, despite the prospect of directing plenty of new faces and youth on the field, DeLong still emanates confidence.
“We look to compete for a conference championship,” said DeLong. “Some of the numbers we’ve discussed may make it look quite daunting, but I think we have a very athletic and talented team. Granted, we are going to have to get everything that we can out of our guys, especially the young ones, right from the very first whistle. But I think we certainly have a chance to improve upon last year’s record, and maybe surprise some people.”
As is the case at many positions this season, there will be many new faces on the offensive side of the ball. The most familiar face that won’t be present when the first ball is snapped against Fitchburg State on Sept. 4 is the holder of numerous NCAA, New England, and Springfield College records, QB Chris Sharpe. Sharpe stood over center for the past three seasons, the most memorable of which came in 2006 when he was tabbed the best Division III football player in the country. In that season alone, he rushed for 1,941 yards and scored an NCAA Division III record 35 TDs for a quarterback.
As always, the quarterback position will be the key to the offense. Sophomore John Schmaltz (5-10, 185), a very gifted athlete who served as the starting left fielder for the Springfield baseball team his freshman season, saw action in four football games in 2007. He has emerged as the frontrunner at QB. The Pride, however, will certainly have depth at the position, provided by senior Rob Orrok, junior Tom Bouffard, and a trio of freshman newcomers who could be very much be in the mix, including Josh Carter.
The fullback position is deemed by Delong as an interesting situation. Sophomore Justin Fuller, whom Delong feels could turn into a great player, has a chance to take over the reins as the key component to Delong’s multiple option offensive scheme. Sophomore Tom Atkins will be battling with Fuller among others for the starting role, while junior Sonel Normil has recovered from ACL surgery and could factor in either as a fullback or a halfback. And we haven’t even mentioned the team’s leading returning rusher from 2007, junior Baldwin Cunningham (590 yards and 6 TDs rushing). As with almost every other position on the field, the coaching staff has brought in a handful of talented freshmen who will be pushing for playing time. In fact, there is a chance the starter could even emerge from that group.
As will the rest of the backfield, the halfback position lacks experience. However, don’t let that fool you, as there are several players waiting in the wings, ready to burst onto the scene. Heading into preseason, sophomore Joe Myhren and Jared Livingston are the leading candidates to fill the roles. Anthony Solano and Justin Fernandez will also vie for playing time. Then there are a number of very talented and athletic incoming freshmen whom Delong is expecting to compete for time right from the get go.
At the split end position, Delong has a very good feeling with what he has returning. The duo of sophomore Tim Brady and senior Jason Hurlock provide Delong with some stability. Brady has great focus and has the ability to go get the ball, while Hurlock (last year’s punter) has good size and hands and is a very versatile athlete. Jim Steinmetz, a junior, could also find himself as a wideout this year.
For an offense that averaged over 62 rushing attempts and 316 rushing yards per game in 2006, nothing is more important than a solid offensive line. Delong’s squad returns a number of older experienced players, but only one starter in Chris Simister. Seniors Mark Boardman and J.P. Gagnon started at times last season and will return in 2008. Part of the reason the Pride was so successful on the ground last season, Boardman will anchor the line as its left tackle, while Simister will assume the role of the left guard where he appeared in eight games last season. Gagnon, an extremely hard worker, will be opposite Boardman on the other side of the line as the Pride’s tight end. Filling in the other holes in the line will be senior Andrew Farinick, a hard-nosed athlete, at center. At right guard, a group of upperclassmen will be battling for the starting role as seniors Jameson Croall, Steve Senofonte, and junior Jason Bednarz could all factor in. At right tackle, a talented junior in Sean Dowd looks to break into the starting lineup and gain valuable experience. Dowd could become an outstanding player according to Delong.
Finally, here is an intriguing name who could fit in somewhere on the offensive line – senior Andrew Jackson, a familiar face who has yet to have his role for the 2008 season truly defined. Delong, who simply describes Jackson as “a real bull”, knows that Jackson will start, it’s just a matter of finding out where. Whereas last year Jackson was the Pride’s every-down fullback, this season the versatile player could see time on the offensive line, defensive line, or as a fullback.
Last season, it seemed as though every week a valued member of the Pride’s defense went down with some type of injury. In fact, “the two guys last year that we really couldn’t afford to lose on defense were Greg Webster and Ken Goodwin, and we lost them both within the first four games of the year,” said Delong.
Well, this season both Webster (lost in game #1) and Goodwin (lost in game #4) return with their eye on making an immediate impact after spending last season on the sidelines. Webster, who last year tore his ACL in the season-opening win at Union, is expected to be one of the leaders of the Pride’s defense this season from his safety position in the secondary. Goodwin, who broke his hand at Utica, will return to his position as a tough, outside linebacker with great football instincts.
As for the defensive line, John Ward is the only returner to a line that will certainly not be big, but promises to be a very quick one. As for the rest of the line, look for Cody Flanigan, Mike Adams, Chris Kulcsar, Quentin Loe, and John Carlson to all battle for playing time in the front of the Pride’s 4-3 defense. Looked upon to really step up will be junior Derrick Weekes, whom Delong feels has tremendous potential if he can continue to develop consistency.
At linebacker, alongside Goodwin returns All-New England linebacker Tom Caporale, Springfield’s most decorated returning player from the 2007 season. For the second straight year Caporale led the Pride and all of the Empire 8 in tackles last season with 97 stops. He will once again be an integral part of the Pride’s defense. The third linebacker to complement the other two outstanding players in Goodwin and Caporale has yet to be determined. Todd Pelletier is a very solid player, while Ryan Gunningsmith is quite versatile, playing either on the inside or the outside. Sophomore Anthony Scarpetti also will factor in the mix after spending the offseason as a sometimes starter on the Pride’s wrestling team.
The Pride’s secondary may be the most solid aspect of the squad, with many of the same faces returning from last year. One who is missing is Joe Harasymiak, Springfield’s career co-leader with 17 interceptions, including a school-record-tying 10 in a single season his junior year. Also missing is his classmate, and fellow cornerback, Paul Zalenski. Both graduated. Meanwhile, besides Webster at strong safety, All-Empire 8 Second Team selection Jarred Burrell returns at free safety. Burrell, whom Delong is expecting great things from, had 32 tackles and three picks last season. Miles Daniels, a top reserve in 2007, returns as a cornerback, while at the field halfback position, Chris Bush, Brian Bruce, and Corey Spencer will all be in a battle for the starting role.
Springfield returns both its primary kickers from last season with Hurlock taking care of the punts and Bush handling the placekicking chores. Gordie Barr, who kicked off last season, also returns. It was Bush who handled the field goals and extra point attempts. Don’t be surprised, however, if a freshman takes over all those positions. In the return game, the Pride will not be shorthanded as long as Burrell is around. Burrell proved to be one of the most dangerous return men in the conference. Last season, he ranked 35th in the country in kick returns with a 25 yard average.