SLIPPERY ROCK - The IUP football team will begin this campaign the same way it ended last season - atop the PSAC rankings.
The Crimson Hawks were tabbed as preseason favorites to defend their PSAC West title on Monday at PSAC West media day at Slippery Rock University. They picked up seven first-place votes from the coaches to lead the West poll. Mercyhurst, which received the only other first-place vote, was second. Slippery Rock, California, Gannon, Edinboro, Clarion and new conference foe Seton Hill rounded out the rest of the field.
"Coach always tells us the rankings don't mean anything because any day you can take a loss. We just got out there and prepare every day and try to be the best we can," IUP senior receiver Terrill Barnes said. "You just never know what you're going to get. We get the best from everybody and we just try to stay on top of our game."
It's the second year in a row IUP has been pegged atop the PSAC West preseason poll. The quad was tied with California with three first-place votes last year.
"That does not matter to us. It's just rankings, but it doesn't matter," IUP senior linebacker Alex Berdahl said. "We are really fired up to get going. We're happy to have the season start. I can't wait. This summer flew by, but I am excited to get back to camp and see everyone else. It'll be good."
Expectations are high for a Crimson Hawks team that finished 12-2 overall and advanced to the NCAA Division II quarterfinals. The squad returns 16 starters from that team.
1. Shippensburg (6)
2. Bloomsburg (1)
3. West Chester (1)
5. East Stroudsburg
6. Lock Haven
1. IUP (7)
2. Mercyhurst (1)
3. Slippery Rock
8. Seton Hill
"Last year is in the past. It's over and done. This is a new team and this team will start to establish its own identity with the first practice on Saturday," IUP coach Frank Cignetti said. "The way we've always approached it here is it's just a process of trying to improve as much as you can every single day. If you do that, then you put yourself in the best position to achieve the desired result. I am excited about getting going. I have been ready to go for the past month. I am excited to get the guys back out there."
Last year, IUP started out the year 3-0 before it dropped a 26-24 decision to California. The Crimson Hawks rebounded to win the rest of their regular-season schedule. They blew past Shippensburg, 41-10, in the PSAC championship game. They could meet again this year as the Red Raiders were picked to finish first in the PSAC East preseason poll. In the postseason, IUP beat Shepherd and New Haven, but dropped a 21-17 decision at Winston-Salem State in the Super Region One title game.
"We'll find out where we are soon, but I am excited to get going. I have been excited with every team I have been a part of. We did some good things last year and finished with a tough loss that we can grow and build on," Cignetti said. "I think this team had the right attitude in the spring. We have to develop some leadership in camp, go through the grind and pay the price for success because it's never easy. I feel good right now, though."
The Crimson Hawks return plenty of experience to their offensive line. Starters Byron Dovales, Nick Carnicella and Mike Charmo return, as does Matt Sasson, who started 10 games in 2011. Bruce Atkins has seen extensive playing time as well. The line paved the way for IUP to rush for a program-best 3,630 yards a year ago.
In addition to the yardage record, the team had two 1,000-yard rushers in Harvie Tuck, the PSAC West Offensive Athlete of the Year, and fellow running back De'Antwan Williams. Tuck ran for 1,660 yards and 16 touchdowns, while Williams was right behind with 1,325 yards and 10. Tuck graduated and Williams hopes to return. He is awaiting word from the NCAA on an extra year of eligibility due to injury sustained during the 2011 season when he was at Rutgers.
"We hope to get him back," said Cignetti, the PSAC West Coach of the Year. "We have a good stable back there, though. Whoever we had the ball to, I am confident they can get the job done."
The squad opens the regular season on Sept. 7 at Southern Connecticut State.