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Panthers host RPI in season opener

GAME #1: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (0-0) at Plymouth State College (0-0)

Sat., Sept. 8, 2001, 12:00 p.m., Currier Field, Plymouth, N.H.

PLYMOUTH, N.H. - The 32nd season of varsity football at Plymouth State College begins this Saturday when the Panthers host Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Currier Field in the season opener for both schools.

The Panthers and Engineers will meet in a non-conference encounter at 12:00 p.m. Saturday, the first of a 10-game schedule for PSC (five home games, five on the road). PSC will play six Freedom Football Conference contests, beginning with a road tilt at Norwich University on Sept. 22nd.

Plymouth State will be seeking a post-season berth in 2001 for the 15th time in the last 19 years. The Panthers won their final three games last season to finish with a .500 record (5-5), but missed the post-season for the first time in four years. Led by third-year head coach Chris Rorke, PSC has 42 returning veterans, including 19 seniors and 17 veterans with experience as starters.

RPI has been a strong program under 13th-year head coach Joe King, posting 10 winning seasons in 12 years and a combined record of 77-35-2. After going 9-0 during the regular season in 1999 and advancing to the NCAA Tournament, RPI slipped to a disappointing 3-6 last season. The Engineers return 13 starters this season, including the bulk of the defensive line.

This will be just the third meeting between these two schools, with each team owning a victory in the young series. RPI won the first encounter 13-0 in the 1993 ECAC Northwest Championship game. Plymouth State knocked off the Engineers in the 2000 season opener in Troy, N.Y., 24-10.

PSC has had plenty of success over the years at Currier Field, capturing more than three-quarters of the contests. Plymouth State now has an all-time home record of 114-36-3 for a .755 winning percentage. The Panthers are 32-10 (.762) at home the last eight years.

The Panthers enter the 2001 season as the winningest Division III football program in the NCAA with at least 25 years on the gridiron. PSC has an all-time winning percentage of .696 with an overall record of 206-88-7, just ahead of Wisconsin-Lacrosse, which has a .695 winning percentage in 76 years of football (470-195-40).

2001 PSC Football Preview

"Our goal first and foremost," said Rorke, "is to win the Freedom Football Conference. If we do that, we get an opportunity to compete in the NCAA play-offs. We feel our record last year wasn't indicative of the talent we had."

Rorke is pleased with the talent returning to the offense, led by senior co-captain Russ Massahos (Windham, N.H.), one of the top players in the history of the program.

"There's no question Russ is the starting point of the offense, whether we're running it or throwing it," said Rorke. "But the key to our offense is distributing the ball to all of our skill players and avoiding turnovers. Last year we had too many turnovers."

Massahos, a two-time All-FFC selection, has rushed for over 2,300 yards in his career. He has led the team in rushing the last two seasons, and last year was the team's second leading receiver with 25 catches, despite missing part or all of three games.

Junior Matt Simpson (Auburn, Maine) will likely get the nod at quarterback, although Rorke could also turn to sophomore transfer Ryan Diamond (Plymouth, N.H.). Simpson was the 1999 FFC Rookie of the Year and has started 17 games over the past two seasons. His main targets will be wide receiver Shaun Spaulding (Everett, Mass.), tight end John Walters (Wells, Maine) and Massahos.

"Spaulding is our speed receiver, our deep threat," said Rorke, " and Walters had an excellent year last season, leading our team in receptions. We expect them both to be big parts of our offense."

The offensive line will have to overcome the loss of four-year starting center Chris Belmont, a three-time All-FFC selection. Rorke is also hoping to avoid the injuries that plagued the line last fall.

"In order for us to do anything, our line must gel as a unit," said Rorke. "The injuries were a key; we had a different line-up all the time and it was difficult to get everyone on the same page. This should be physically the best line since I've been here, although it will be tough to replace a leader like Chris Belmont."

Defensively, Rorke has plenty of veterans returning at linebacker and in the secondary, but the line will have a new look.

"We lost basically the entire front line," said Rorke, "so that's our biggest question mark. We have the talent to replace them, but they lack the experience and we haven't had a chance to work with them that much."

The anchor of the defense is the linebacking unit, led by senior co-captain Chris Kelliher (Goffstown, N.H.), the team leader in tackles the last two seasons. He is a two-time All-Conference pick who made more than 100 stops last season. Other key returning veterans include seniors Brian Chaplain (Hooksett, N.H.), Tim Hersey (Bedford, N.H.), Jim Stacy (Branford, Conn.) and Ben Sirota (North Andover, Mass.).

The secondary lost a key veteran in Jason Marcell, but welcomes back seniors Mike Pelletier (Concord, N.H.), Bobby Maylone (Manchester, N.H.) and Cory Skillin (Norwich, N.Y.) and junior Jamey Funk (Wayland, Mass.), a group that combined for 10 interceptions in 2000.

"Pelletier and Maylone both started last year," said Rorke, "and Skillin and Funk split time starting at one corner and both played a lot, so basically we have four returning starters. We're pretty confident with that unit as a whole."

The line will have some new faces, but Rorke is pleased with the players he has to choose from. Top candidates include sophomores Shawn McGowan (Londonderry, N.H.), Nate Laita (Dover-Foxcroft, Maine) and Rich Collins (Exeter, N.H.), whose average size is 6'4", 250 pounds.

"We're bigger and more talented on the line, but less experienced," said Rorke. "Physically, we haven't had bodies like that since I've been here."

The special teams will also display some new faces, but Rorke is excited with what he sees. He expects the kicking game will be improved over last season. Freshmen Aaron Miller (Franklin, N.H.) and Ken Quiricone (Stratford, Conn.) will battle for the placekicking job, although junior Jay Zinis (Manchester, N.H.) has experience and can also step in. Senior Bobby Maylone is a four-year veteran punter. The return duties will likely be split among Jason Bordas (Elmore, Vt.), Shaun Spaulding, Mike Bardellini (Milford, Mass.) and Maylone.

PSC's biggest challenges in the Freedom Conference will again be Western Connecticut and Springfield, the league champions the last two seasons.

"They're obviously the two teams to beat, as they have been the last two years," said Rorke, "and I don't think this year will be any different."

"Our biggest challenge as a team," said Rorke, "is staying healthy and coming together as a team. We have the talent, so if we can get off to a good start and stay together as a team, we should have a good season."