SLIPPERY ROCK - The IUP football team really hopes the third time is the charm.
For the third-straight year, the Crimson Hawks were tabbed as preseason favorites to claim the PSAC West title on Monday at PSAC West media day at Slippery Rock University.
They earned five first-place votes from the coaches to lead the West poll. California, which earned three first-place votes, was second. Slippery Rock, which won the West last year, was slated third and Mercyhurst was fourth. In a repeat of last season's preseason poll, Gannon, Edinboro, Clarion and Seton Hill rounded out the remaining spots.
"That's three years in a row, and it doesn't mean anything - you have to earn it. I think there are a lot of teams that could be ranked first," IUP coach Curt Cignetti said. "I think it's a pretty balanced league with a lot of parity. I think there are probably five teams that have as good a chance to win it as anybody."
Cignetti's troops hope to bounce back from last season when they finished 9-2. The squad won its first five games and appeared poised to defend its PSAC West title. However, the team dropped games at Slippery Rock and against Edinboro in consecutive weeks to fall out of contention. The squad rebounded to close out the year with four-straight wins.
"We only have two starters back on offense, but we have a lot of guys who have started," Cignetti said. "The same thing holds true on defense. Overall, 38 of the 89 faces we're bringing to camp are new guys. That's 44 percent of your team, so this is not a veteran team."
Senior center Matt Sasson is one of the two returning starters on offense. He knows the team has to earn its way back to the top once practices start on Thursday.
"We have to go and put the work in. People pick it, but we have to go and do it. The reason they are football cliches is because they are true. You have to take it one day at a time; you have to work hard; you have to take care of business every day," he said. "There's not a lot of time between now and Sept. 6. So, every single practice, weight session and meeting - you have to make it count. Our goals for ourselves are bigger than what anyone would pick for us. We have big expectations because that's what it means to be at IUP."
Senior linebacker Alex Berdahl, who missed all but one game last year due to injury, knows his squad is focused.
"It's a great honor that the other coaches recognize us, but, for us players, it really doesn't mean anything. We have to come out and perform," he said. "We need to come out and prove we're a strong team."
The Crimson Hawks open their season Sept. 6 at home against St. Augustine's. They hit the road for three of their four games as they trek to Kutztown and Lock Haven before returning home to play Mercyhurst. They venture to Edinboro in Week 5 and welcome Seton Hill on Week 6. The squad goes to Cal the next week and returns home to play Slippery Rock and Clarion in consecutive weeks. The team closes PSAC play at Gannon on Nov. 8 and will welcome West Chester the following week if it is not in the PSAC championship game.
"We're excited to get going and get out on the practice field, no doubt," Cignetti said.