GAME #1: Plymouth State University (0-0) at Saint Anselm College (0-1)
Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009, 1:00 p.m., Grappone Stadium, Manchester, N.H.
PLYMOUTH, N.H. - The 40th season of varsity football at Plymouth State University begins this Saturday, Sept. 5, when the Panthers visit Granite State rival Saint Anselm College for a non-conference match-up.
The Panthers and Hawks are set to kick off at 1:00 p.m. at Grappone Stadium in Manchester. It is the first of two non-conference affairs for Plymouth State before eight New England Football Conference contests. PSU will host Mount Ida College next Saturday, Sept. 12, in the home opener at Currier Field.
Plymouth State, led by sixth-year head coach Paul Castonia (right), is coming off an outstanding season in 2008 that included a perfect NEFC Boyd Division regular season (7-0), a victory over Maine Maritime in the NEFC Championship game, a visit to Cortland State for the NCAA Division III playoffs, and a final record of 10-2.
Saint Anselm opened its season last Saturday with a 17-13 home loss to Kutztown University (Pa.). The Hawks showed improvement during last year's 2-8 campaign after two winless seasons. Led by second-year head coach Patrick Murphy, Saint Anselm had the ball in Kutztown territory twice in the fourth quarter last Saturday with a chance to win the game after losing to the same team last year, 35-0.
This Saturday's game will be just the fourth 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, and the Panthers took last year's contest in Plymouth, 36-28.
PSU has a 15-21-3 career record in season openers, including wins the last two years.
Following the two non-conference games, it will be NEFC opponents the rest of the way for Plymouth State. PSU hosts Coast Guard on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the NEFC crossover game, 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. 14. 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 is tied with the 10th-highest career winning percentage (.636) among all NCAA Division III football programs.
Plymouth State Football --- 2009 Outlook
Plymouth State has enjoyed two straight superb seasons, winning an ECAC post-season crown in 2007 and the coveted NEFC championship in 2008. The Panthers are hoping to make it three in a row in 2009, but will have to do it with several new faces on the field.
PSU returns six starters on both offense and defense under coach Castonia, the NEFC Coach of the Year in 2007 and the New England Division II/III Coach of the Year in 2008. Key strengths among the returnees include the offensive line, where four of the five starters are back, and the defensive backfield, which includes three returning starters. Castonia says the biggest holes to fill are defensive tackle, tight end and the entire offensive backfield.
"We're trying to focus on who we have and not who we graduated," said Castonia, "but you can't overlook what we lost out of our offensive backfield. They will be greatly missed but we feel we have good people here that are ready to step in and handle the job."
Opposing defenses are thrilled that graduation has claimed PSU's entire offensive backfield, including star running back Jeff Mack, one of the top ball carriers in the nation the past two years (3,132 yards, 34 TDs) and the second-leading rusher in school history (3,944 yards, 43 TDs). Also gone are the seventh and eighth-leading rushers in school history in quarterback John DeMarco (1,932 yards, 35 TDs) and fullback Brandon Clough (1,328 yards, 12 TDs). They were key players that led PSU to a 19-3 record the past two years as one of the top rushing teams in the nation.
"In addition to losing good players, we're losing good leaders," said Castonia. "What chemistry this year's team has and who provides leadership remains to be seen."
Castonia says the success of the past two years can be a help to this year's team, but warns the Panthers can't live on their laurels.
"It's a fine line between forgetting that they're champions and remembering how they became champions," said Castonia. "You can't be living in the past but you have to remember how you got there."
The Panthers ran the football nearly 90 percent of the time last year and ranked seventh in the nation in rushing, and a big portion of their success was due to the strength of the offensive line. Four of the starters are back, including senior tackles Zac Duval (Dover, N.H./Dover) and Matt Vahey (Fremont, N.H./Pinkerton Academy), senior guard Mike Vahey (Fremont, N.H./Pinkerton Academy), and junior center Nick Fuccillo (East Falmouth, Mass./Falmouth).
"Losing Joe Duval (who graduated) is big, but we're happy to have four out of five linemen back," said Castonia. "They've certainly been a big part of our success the past couple of years."
The biggest question on offense might be who will carry the ball, with Mack, Clough and DeMarco out of the picture. Castonia is confident that the Panthers will be fine in that department.
"We have several guys who we think can step in there," said the coach. "These guys got game experience the past couple of years when we had a big lead or when Mack needed a breather, so we have confidence that they will step up this season."
Junior tailback Steve Campbell (Northborough, N.H./Algonquin) will likely get many of the carries. A starter on defense and special teams last year, Campbell also rushed for 345 yards and eight touchdowns as a reserve tailback, averaging a whopping 8.8 yards a carry. A couple of other underclassmen could also be given an opportunity, according to Castonia.
Senior Jay Baird (Worcester, Mass./Holy Name) and junior Chris Francher (Weare, N.H./John Stark) should both see action at the fullback position. Both have performed well in the past when given an opportunity, and should be a strength for the team this fall. Baird rushed for 193 yards (6.2 avg.) and one touchdown last year and Francher added 156 yards (4.6 avg.) and two TDs..
Junior J.J. Brooks (Seabrook, N.H./Winnacunnet) looks to move into the starting quarterback role. A former high school QB, Brooks has been a wide receiver for two years while waiting his turn to perform under center. He led the team in receiving last year with 18 catches, 476 yards and four touchdowns. Junior QB Alex Sobolov (Goffstown, N.H.) could also challenge for playing time.
Returning members of the Panther receiving corps include senior Alex Smith (Walpole, Mass.) and juniors John Creamer (Abington, Mass.) and Luke Denio (Hampton, N.H./Winnacunnet). They caught less than a dozen balls last year but Castonia said they and some others should be able to contribute this season. The coach added that the tight end position is wide open, with sophomores James Liddel (Shelton, Conn.) and Justin Kane (Exeter, N.H.) the top candidates.
Castonia said he is uncertain whether the Panthers will run the ball as often as they did last year.
"If we can run it like we have in the past, we will," he said. "If not, we'll be a little more balanced. We'll have to see what works."
While Mack was making most of the headlines for PSU last year, the Panther defense was quietly leading the NEFC in rushing, scoring and overall defense. Three of the six All-Conference defenders return to this year's team.
"We've had success the past few years playing strong team defense," said Castonia. "We don't have one or two guys who stand out, but we feel we have strength all over the field. That's what's made our defense successful."
The most veterans are in the Panther backfield, where junior corners Kevin Whalen (Wallingford, Conn./Sheehan) and Dan Kelly (Londonderry, N.H.) and junior safety Zach Parsons (Florence, Mass./Northampton) return. Whalen is a two-time All-NEFC performer (Second Team in '07, First Team in '08) and Parsons was an All-Conference Second Team pick last year. The three combined for nine interceptions in 2008.
"We feel good about those three guys," said Castonia. "We'll need to find a fourth and then develop some depth."
Junior Brian Castellucci (Derry, N.H./Pinkerton Academy) is the only returning starter at linebacker. He was second on the team with 53 tackles last season and should backbone the unit this year. Sophomore Ian Culling (Rochester, N.H./Spaulding) and junior Mike Bruning (Abington, Mass.) are experienced linebackers and should see plenty of playing time.
PSU has both of its starting defensive ends back but graduated its two defensive tackles. The returning ends are senior Jim Sestito (Foxboro, Mass.), who was First Team All-Conference last year after making 41 tackles and eight-and-a-half sacks, and junior Matt MacLean (Abington, Mass.), who had 37 tackles and three sacks. Junior Jim Buckley (Burlington, Mass.) and sophomore Pat Sullivan (Hampton, N.H./Winnacunnet) can fill in at defensive end, while senior captain Alex Battaglino (Avon, Conn.), seniors Bill Horan (Stoughton, Mass.) and Mike Carone (Newington, Conn.) and former tight end Aaron Getz (Palmerton, Pa./Palmerton Area) are top candidates to take over the tackle spots.
Most of the special teams positions are wide open, and Castonia feels comfortable that the jobs will work themselves out in the preseason. The kicking position is open, for extra points, field goals and kick-offs. Sophomore Christian Mulcahy (Norwich, Conn./St. Bernards) returns after serving as the team punter last season when PSU ranked seventh in the country in punt return defense.
The Panthers have a few options in the return game. Whalen has been the punt returner the past two years and could fill the spot again this year, or Castonia could look to a newcomer. J.J. Brooks was the top kick returner the past two years, but that is likely to change with him moving to quarterback.
NEFC PRE-SEASON POLL: The Panthers were picked to finish second in the Boyd Division in the inaugural NEFC preseason coaches' poll. Curry topped the poll with six first-place votes, while PSU was second with two top votes. Salve Regina was third, followed by Endicott, UMass Dartmouth, MIT, Nichols and Western New England. Bridgewater State edged Maine Maritime for the top spot in the Bogan Division coaches' poll, and Curry was the overall favorite to capture the NEFC title.
PANTHER CAPTAIN: The Panthers have only one captain this season - senior defensive tackle Alex Battaglino (Avon, Conn.).
COACHING STAFF: Head coach Paul Castonia (Trinity '86) is in his seventh season in charge of the Panthers, with a PSU record of 28-32. He has five assistants returning from last year - Devin Zeman (Associate Head Coach/Def. Coordinator/Def. Backs), Lou Desloges (Running Backs), Tom Pabst (Offensive Line), Dan Fallon (Linebackers) and John Mihalko (Defensive Line).. The new members of the staff are Tyler Scudder (Receivers) and student assistants Brandon Clough (Offense), Ryan Harrington (Defense) and Jim McGuire (Tight Ends).
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