Panthers looking to be competitive in MASCAC in 2015
|GAME #1:||Castleton University (0-0) at Plymouth State University (0-0)|
|Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, 1:00 p.m., Currier Field, Plymouth, N.H.|
PLYMOUTH, N.H. – The 45th season of varsity football at Plymouth State University begins this Saturday as the Panthers host Castleton University in a non-conference affair.
The Panthers and Spartans will kick off Saturday at 1:00 p.m. at Currier Field in Plymouth. PSU is looking for an improved season in 2015, with at least nine starters returning on both sides of the ball, while Castleton is coming off its winningest season in its six-year history. PSU will play a pair of home games in September, while Castleton is on the road for its first two encounters before its home debut on Sept. 26.
The Panthers are led this season by two senior co-captains, offensive lineman #56 Ryan Bellerose (Hudson, N.H./Alvirne) and linebacker #45 Zack Wilkins (West Simsbury, Conn./Simsbury), pictured at right.
Plymouth State and Castleton have engaged in the season opener the past five years, with Castleton holding a 3-2 series lead. PSU won the season debuts over the Spartans in 2010 (16-14) and 2011 (28-20), while Castleton has taken the match-up the last three years, 35-7 decision in Vermont in 2012, 35-31 in 2013 in Plymouth, and 20-13 last year at Spartan Stadium. Castleton won in overtime last year after PSU kicked a field goal with a minute remaining in regulation to force the extra session.
The 2015 season will be the third year for football in the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC), with Framingham State capturing the first two titles in 2013 and 2014. The nine teams play a round-robin schedule, and having completed the mandatory three-year wait, the champion will receive an automatic berth into the 2015 NCAA Division III championship tournament.
Plymouth State Football ---- 2015 Outlook
The Plymouth State football team returns as many as eight starters on offense and 10 on defense this fall, setting up what could be an improved season in 2015. The Panthers are looking to expand on their performance from a year ago, and 13th-year head coach Paul Castonia is optimistic with the return of so many players.
"We definitely have a lot of guys back, and that should help us," said Castonia. "We had a lot of freshmen who got valuable playing time, and we had others who were in their first year at their positions. We feel that experience will pay off this year, as we made some good progress as the season went along last year."
The Panther defense, which lost just two starters from last season, should be able to hold their own against the competitive MASCAC opponents. They will have to overcome the graduation of Kyle Wilson, who earned All-Conference honors as a dominant defensive end.
"Kyle will be tough to replace," said Castonia. "Other teams set their game plan around him, so he faced a tough challenge each week. We will have to adjust our defense with him not in there anymore."
The Coach says consistency could be the key to this year's squad. "We often went into third down in a good situation last year, for example, especially late in the season. We created a third-and-long, but then couldn't sustain it. The building blocks are there, now we just have to do it on every down."
Castonia makes no predictions on the season, but guarantees the team will work hard and represent the team and the school with class.
"The guys have worked very hard in the offseason and they want to see that work pay off. If we can stay healthy and the guys can continue to work hard, I think we can definitely show improvement as a team."
The Panthers have five players who are returning starters in the backfield, giving the team plenty of experience. Castonia says the experience helps, but they will have to continue to improve.
Senior Sam Bellamy (Keyport, N.J.) is a two-year starter at safety, and was joined by junior RJ Ramsden (Florence, Mass./Northampton) last year. Sophomore Blair Zentek (Simsbury, Conn.) held his own as a rookie starter at one corner while sophomore Thomas Radonich (Westwood, Mass.) took over for sophomore Zach Ziemba (Manchester, N.H./West) on the other side after Ziemba went down with an injury in week three.
"Ziemba was one of our best players until he got injured," says Castonia. "It's nice having five guys back there who have some good experience."
Seniors Zack Wilkins (West Simsbury, Conn./Simsbury) and Will Perotti (East Canaan, Conn./Housatonic Valley Regional) are the top returnees at linebacker, after both players changed positions last year. Wilkins, a co-captain this fall, dropped back from the defensive line while Perotti shifted from tight end. Senior Mike Leonard (Merrimack, N.H./Trinity) has also seen ample playing time at linebacker, including a stint as a starter.
The defensive line has the least amount of experience, but sophomore Joe Esposito (Hackettstown, N.J./Hanover Park) and junior Brandon Mitchell (Windham, Maine) are returning starters who can contribute. Junior Alton George (Foxboro, Mass.) has seen plenty of snaps and could step in.
The Panthers showed an improved passing game in 2014, and are looking for it to be a strength this fall. A solid group of receivers has opened up the offense, something Castonia hopes can continue.
"We have several guys who did some good things last fall, in terms of receiving, and we'll try to get the ball to them a little more this year. That would also help us in the running game."
Senior RJ Kasper (Killingworth, Conn./Haddam-Killingworth) returns as the leading receiver from a year ago, when he caught 28 passes for 358 yards. Sophomore Jake Becker (Portsmouth, N.H.) came on in the last few weeks of his rookie campaign, and sophomore Chris Kelly (Belmont, Mass.) had shown solid progress before getting hurt. Senior Jimmy Boulay (Keene, N.H.) could also be an option.
Senior Drew Bolton (Concord, N.H.) took over at quarterback last year, starting six of the last seven games, and brings to preseason camp the most experience at the position. Castonia says one of the newcomers could also emerge.
The leading returnee among ball carriers is senior Andrew Vollaro (Higganum, Conn./Haddam-Killingworth), a veteran who has seen plenty of action the past three seasons. Castonia is hoping he can avoid the injury bug this year, and if so, should be a solid contributor to the offense. "He did some really nice things when he was in there," said Castonia, "he runs hard and has good vision."
Sophomores Joe Ceraldi (Cranston, R.I./Cranston West) and Andrew Reardon (Rockland, Mass.) are also running back candidates after seeing limited playing time as rookies. Junior Tyler Mahoney (Dracut, Mass./Greater Lowell Tech) moves over from the defense and will be given the opportunity to contribute.
The interior line has three key returnees back for this fall, led by senior co-captain Ryan Bellerose (Hudson, N.H./Alvirne). "He's the guy up front who sets the tone," says Castonia. "He's not very big but he plays hard and gives us leadership." Senior Ryan Bentley (Charleston, N.H. /Fall Mountain Regional) and juniors Rick Ordway (Walpole, Mass.) and Andrew Gregoire (Acton, Maine/Sanford) also have experience but need to continue to improve, according to Castonia.
The Panthers have had solid special teams play in recent years, and Castonia is hoping for that trend to continue. From record-setting kicks to blocked kicks to game-changing returns and even field position advantages, PSU has benefitted from strong special teams.
PSU lost its kicker from last year, former All-Conference place-kicker and school-record holder Rob Giles. The team will also need a new punter, and Will Perotti (East Canaan, Conn./Housatonic Valley Regional) has some experience to offer. Castonia is hoping a newcomer will also emerge at both positions.
"Having strong special teams is often an indication of how well the team will do," said Castonia. "It's an indication of how unselfish you are and guys understanding the value of the whole team, not just their own position. Special teams have been good to us over the years."
The Panthers will open the season with traditional non-conference opponents Castleton and Mount Ida before diving into the MASCAC campaign. The eight-game regular-season MASCAC slate will determine the conference champion, which will receive an automatic berth into the NCAA Championships beginning this fall.
"The level of competition in the MASCAC is very strong, and balanced as well," said Castonia. "We face an uphill battle, but we're looking forward to it as a staff and the kids are looking forward to it as well. We're eager to see what we can do."
PSU FOOTBALL HISTORY: PSU enters the 2015 campaign with one of the highest career winning percentages (.605) among NCAA Division III football programs. Plymouth State was a member of the New England Football Conference (NEFC) from 1971-91, winning or sharing nine titles in 21 seasons. The Panthers won or shared eight straight NEFC championships from 1981-88, led by former Heisman Trophy candidate and Sports Illustrated cover man Joe Dudek. PSU was also a member of the now-defunct Freedom Football Conference from 1992-2003, winning FFC Championships in 1994, 1995 and 2001. PSU rejoined the NEFC in 2006 and won its 10th NEFC title in 2008 before departing for the MASCAC in 2013.
A LOOK AHEAD: The Panthers will play their second and final non-conference game next Saturday, Sept. 12, at Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass., before the conference slate kicks in for the final eight games. PSU's first MASCAC game will be at Currier Field on Sept. 19 against the 2014 runner-up, Western Connecticut.
-- 30 --