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September 1, 2008

PSU Football opens season Saturday against Saint Anselm

GAME #1:         Saint Anselm College (0-1) at Plymouth State University (0-0)

                          Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008, 1:00 p.m., Currier Field, Plymouth, N.H.

            PLYMOUTH, N.H. - The 39th season of varsity football at Plymouth State University begins this Saturday, Sept. 6, when the Panthers host Granite State rival Saint Anselm College in a non-conference match-up at Currier Field.

            The Panthers and Hawks are set to kick off at 1:00 p.m. on PSU's home field.  It is the first of two non-conference affairs for Plymouth State before eight New England Football Conference contests. PSU will make its first road trip next Saturday, Sept. 13, to Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass. Saint Anselm opened its season last Thursday with a 35-0 setback at Kutztown University (Pa.)

               Plymouth State, led by sixth-year head coach Paul Castonia (right), is coming off a superb 2007 campaign that included a 9-1 overall record, second place in the NEFC Boyd Division with a 6-1 mark, and an ECAC North Atlantic Bowl Championship victory over Bridgewater State. The Panthers return seven starters from an offense that led the NEFC in rushing (286 of its 392 yards per game on the ground), and five starters from a defense that finished first in the NEFC in total defense (allowing 289 yards per game).

            Saint Anselm is hoping first-year head coach Patrick Murphy can energize and turn around the Hawks' program after suffering a pair of winless seasons.  The Hawks trailed Kutztown 14-0 at halftime last week before the Golden Bears pulled away in the second half.

            This Saturday's game will be just the third career meeting in football between the two Granite State schools.  Saint Anselm won the first two encounters, 24-0 in Plymouth in 2004 and 40-14 in Manchester in 2005.

            Plymouth State has a 14-21-3 career record in season openers, but a 24-12-2 mark in home openers at Currier Field. The Panthers won last year's debut, 41-30 over Mount Ida at Currier Field, PSU's first win in a season opener since a 24-10 win at Rensselaer in 2000.

            Following the two non-conference games, it will be NEFC opponents the rest of the way for Plymouth State.  PSU faces Coast Guard, defending Bogan Division champions, on Saturday, Sept. 20, followed by the seven Boyd Division games vs. UMass Dartmouth, Western New England College, Endicott College, Nichols College, Curry College, MIT, and Salve Regina University.

              The NEFC concludes the regular season with a championship game between the first-place teams from the Bogan and Boyd Divisions, this year on Nov. 15.  The winner of that game receives an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III Championship Tournament.

              After beginning its football program in 1970, Plymouth State was a member of the NEFC from 1971-91, winning or sharing nine titles in those 21 seasons.  The Panthers won or shared eight straight NEFC championships from 1981-88.  PSU has the 12th-highest career winning percentage (.636) among all NCAA Division III football programs. 

Plymouth State Football   --  2008 Outlook

            Coach Castonia says the success of the 2007 team could help this year's Panther squad.

            "The expectations this year are higher because of what we did last year," says Castonia.  "We know what it takes to be successful.  With the experience we gained, plus the hard work we put in over the off-season, we hope the results will be the same this year."

            Castonia also warns of the challenges of following up a successful campaign.

            "We won't be sneaking up on anyone anymore," says Castonia.  "People will be gunning for us. We will have to work hard and stay focused every week."

            The Panthers featured a strong power running attack and an efficient passing game in 2007, and that is likely to continue this year.  PSU returns its top four rushers, who combined for over 2,600 yards on the ground and ranked seventh in the nation in Division III, and the starting quarterback who led the offense to the NCAA's fifth-most efficient passing game.

            "We would like to take advantage of our strengths, and the backfield and offensive line are right there," says Castonia.  "We are confident in our running game. And while we haven't thrown the ball a lot, we have been productive when we do and we've cut down on turnovers."

            The defense was inconsistent during the first half of last season, but came together to post shutouts in three of the last four regular season games.

            "We'll have some holes to fill on defense," admits Castonia, "but we have more depth on defense, too.  We're hoping some of the young guys can step up." 

OFFENSE

            Senior tailback Jeff Mack (Milford, N.H./Milford) returns to lead the offense after recording one of the best seasons in school history.  He rushed for 1,353 yards and 14 touchdowns and was named to the New England Division II/III All-Star team.  The fifth-year senior has also climbed to sixth on the school's career rushing list with 2,165 yards and 23 TDs.

            "He's not flashy but he's very productive," says Castonia.  "He's very durable and gets a lot of his yards after the first contact.  He's also worked hard to improve, and that's shown."

            Senior quarterback John DeMarco (Milford, N.H./Milford)  is also a key component to the Panther offense.  He set the school record in passing efficiency (164.08), throwing for more than 1,000 yards, 10 touchdowns and only five interceptions. He also rushed for over 500 yards and 10 scores.

            "He's done a good job of getting the ball to where it needs to be," says Castonia.  "He's made good decisions on when and where to throw it, when to run it, and when to throw it away."

            The Panthers also have a pair of fullbacks, senior Brandon Clough (Rochester, N.H./Spaulding) and junior Jay Baird (Worcester, Mass./Holy Name), who can block and carry the football. Clough rushed for 478 yards and six touchdowns despite missing several games with an injury.  Baird added 235 yards and two TDs off the bench.

            "Clough was on pace to rush for 1,000 yards before he got injured," says Castonia.  "He's gotten a lot better and should be productive for us. And Baird did a lot of good things while filling in for Clough, so he'll be in there as well."

            The Panthers have four experienced starters back on the offensive line.  Senior Joe Duval (Dover, N.H./Dover) is a three-year starter at right guard, and senior Mike Vahey (Fremont, N.H./Pinkerton) and junior Matt Vahey (Fremont, N.H./Pinkerton) are the returnees at left guard and left tackle.  Aaron Ashburner (Barrington, N.H./Dover), a starter in 2006, is back after sitting out last year.

            The receiving corps is a big question mark, according to Castonia.  The top three receivers from the past four years, wide receivers Brad Largy and Drew Richardson and tight end Adam Long, all graduated, leaving the Panther cupboard nearly bare. Sophomore tight end Aaron Getz (Palmerton, Pa./Palmerton Area) has limited playing experience, and senior Tim Nicholson (Franklin, Mass./Franklin), who shifted to linebacker last season, will be back on offense, where he was a reserve tight end in 2005 and 2006.

            "It's wide open (at the receiving position)," says Castonia.  "We're hoping to find guys who can help us maintain the efficiency we had last year. We need a good passing game to complement our running game."

DEFENSE

            The strength of the returning group is in the interior line, says Castonia, but there are no superstars and success will have to come as a team.

            "We have played strong team defense in the past and been successful," says Castonia.  "We're confident in the guys we have back, and know that there are always some pleasant surprises, too."

            Senior tackle Justin Jarvis (Surry, N.H./Monadnock), a two-time All-Conference pick, returns to backbone the defensive line, which lost three starters.  Senior tackle Ryan Harrington (Hampton, N.H./Winnacunnet) and junior tackle Alex Battaglino (Avon, Conn./Avon) have both seen significant action the past two years and can jump right in.

            Senior Mike Lannon (Sharon, Mass./Sharon) and sophomores Kevin Whalen (Wallingford, Conn./Sheehan) and Erich Sundberg (Plymouth, Mass./Plymouth South) are all returning starters in the Panther defensive backfield.  Lannon is a two-year starter and was one of the conference leaders with five interceptions at free safety, and Whalen was named All-NEFC Second Team at cornerback after a strong rookie campaign.  Sundberg was third on the team in tackles at strong safety despite missing a couple games with an injury. Sophomores Zach Parsons (Florence, Mass./Northampton) and Dan Kelly (Londonderry, N.H.) also saw playing time and can help out this fall.

            "It's nice to have both experience and depth back there," said Castonia. "That gives us a lot of options."

             Senior Brian Keenan (Hampstead, N.H./Pinkerton) is the only returning starter at linebacker; he was fifth on the team in tackles last year.  Sophomores Brian Castellucci (Derry, N.H./Pinkerton) and Steve Campbell (Northborough, Mass./Algonquin) have shown promise in limited action and will get a chance to prove themselves, along with some newcomers, according to Castonia.

            "Linebacker is our biggest question mark entering the season," says Castonia, "but we're confident that it will sort itself out.  We have a number of people who will get a chance."

SPECIAL TEAMS

            PSU's starting kicker from last year is back.  Graduate student Chris Dopp (Epsom, N.H./Bow), who converted 38-of-41 extra-point attempts last season and all five field goal tries, gives the Panthers an experienced kicker.  The team is looking for a new punter after the graduation loss of Largy, the First Team All-NEFC punter from last year.  A couple of veterans from last year could take over the role, or a newcomer could emerge.

            Whalen is the likely candidate to return punts again; he had 15 of the team's 19 punt returns last year.  Sophomore J.J. Brooks (Seabrook, N.H./Winnacunnet) was the leading kick returner last year, and Castonia says that job is wide open, too.

            "Returning punts and kicks is a difficult thing to do and takes a special player," says Castonia.  "We have a couple guys who we feel confident in." 

OUTLOOK

            The Panthers' only loss last year was to five-time defending league champion Curry College, and Castonia sees the Colonels as the biggest hurdle again this year.

            "Curry is obviously the team to beat," says Castonia, "but any other team could be in the top of the conference, too.  And the league is very balanced and unpredictable.  Nichols was winless a couple years ago and has been above .500 the past two years. Teams can become good in a hurry." 

            CO-CAPTAINS:  The Panthers have two senior co-captains this season - running back Jeff Mack (Milford, N.H./Milford) and TE Tim Nicholson (Franklin, Mass./Franklin). 

            COACHING STAFF:  PSU head coach Paul Castonia (Trinity '86) is in his sixth season in charge of the Panthers, and he has five assistants returning from last year - Lou Desloges (Running Backs), Devin Zeman (Quarterbacks/Special Teams), Tom Pabst (Offensive Line), Dan Fallon (Linebackers) and David Kunyz (Receivers).. The new members of the staff are former Plymouth State and Saint Anselm assistant Paul Lavigne (Defensive Line) and John Mihalko (Tight Ends).

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