IUP picked as West favorites

The IUP football team found itself in a familiar spot — atop the PSAC West preseason poll.

The Crimson Hawks received six of the eight possible first-place votes to finish at the top of the list when the PSAC released its preseason polls online Monday. It marks the fifth time in the past six years IUP has been slotted first.

Last year, the team was picked first in the preseason poll, but finished second to California (Pa.). Nevertheless, the Crimson Hawks advanced to the NCAA Division II playoffs for the 17th time. They beat Fairmont State, 62-13, in the opener, but fell to Cal, 44-23, for the second time last year to finish 10-2.

“I think it’s nice to have the respect of the other coaches as a program. In reality, it doesn’t mean a whole lot; we don’t get any extra points when we play the games. But it’s nice that people respect our program,” IUP first-year head coach Paul Tortorella said. “Here at IUP, our expectations, first and foremost, are always to win the conference.”

Cal was picked second and earned the other two first-place votes from the conference’s head coaches, while Slippery Rock was third. Edinboro, Gannon, Seton Hill, Clarion and Mercyhurst rounded out the poll.

“It’s cool that the other teams have respect for us, but it doesn’t mean much to us,” IUP defensive lineman Matt Mowad said. “We’re just ready to come out, work hard every day and prove why we’re No. 1 rather than just have it handed to us.”

Quarterback Lenny Williams echoed that statement.

“I don’t really get into that too much. It is what it is. No one has played yet, so they’re going off of last year. We have to go out there and take it day-by-day every week. We can’t worry about what happens in preseason.”

With 15 starters and 50 letterwinners back, optimism is high for IUP. Players report to campus Sunday and will take part in conditioning tests Monday. Practices begin the following day.

“My expectations are definitely high for this team. Being a senior, we’ve been here for four years and we want to finish on a good note,” IUP receiver Walt Pegues said. “It’ll mean a lot to the program if we finish the right way.”

The team has a new look on the sidelines as Tortorella takes over as head coach. He spent the last 22 years as IUP’s defensive coordinator.

“When you take over a program and you’re new coming in, everything is different. Having been here as long as I’ve been here and working for the different head coaches I’ve worked for, I feel like our staff, including myself and the assistants who have been here for a while, know what this program is all about,” Tortorella said. “We know the landscape and hopefully we can have our kids maximize their potential.”

In addition, longtime assistant Jim Smith takes over as the team’s defensive coordinator, while Tate Gregory joined the program as offensive coordinator. He spent the past four seasons as the University of Charleston’s offensive coordinator.

“They’re both experienced. Coach Smith was a coordinator on offense, so he’s called plays in games. Coach Gregory has been a coordinator and has called plays in games. He was the coordinator at Charleston two years ago when we played them and I thought he was really good and did a great job there,” Tortorella said. “I think our staffs on both sides of the ball and on special teams are really all on the same page, so I’m really comfortable with where we are.”

The Crimson Hawks begin the season with four home games. The team opens against Ashland on Aug. 31 and hosts East Stroudsburg (Sept. 9), Cheyney (Sept. 16) and Edinboro (Sept. 23) before going to Seton Hill on Sept. 30. The squad has an Oct. 7 home showdown with Cal before it visits Slippery Rock (Oct. 14) and Clarion (Oct. 21). IUP returns home to battle Gannon on Oct. 28 and visits Mercyhurst on Nov. 4. The team wraps up the regular season on Nov. 11 with a home game against Bloomsburg. That finale could change if IUP wins the West and plays in the conference championship game.