Panthers look to build on strong 2016 campaign
PLYMOUTH, N.H. – The Plymouth State University football team was picked to finish fifth in the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC) in 2017, as voted on by the league's nine head coaches.
Bridgewater State, the defending regular season champions, were selected first and received five first place votes for 61 points. The Bears finished last season with a perfect 8-0 record in league play. Framingham State was picked second, securing the remaining four first place votes to finish with 59 points, while Western Connecticut State was third with 46 points.
The Panthers, coming off a 4-4 conference mark in 2016, earned 35 points to land just behind UMass Dartmouth (38 points) for fourth place.
PSU relied on an opportunistic defense and steady offense to finish 2016 in a three-way tie for third place in the league – the highest finish since the Panthers joined the MASCAC in 2013 – and three of the team's four conference losses came by a total of 10 points.
Head coach Paul Castonia, voted the 2016 Champion's Choice Coach of the Year by his MASCAC colleagues, welcomes back six starters on defense and eight on offense from a team looking to continue to climb in the MASCAC standings.
The Panther offense will welcome back its starting quarterback, two leading rushers and three of its top four receivers from last fall, as well as the majority of the offensive line. Junior Zack Edwards (Brookfield, Mass.) is expected to lead the team at the quarterback position after throwing for a career-high 13 touchdowns last fall.
Edwards' two top targets from 2016 are both back, as well. Sophomore receiver Jacob Szulc (Concord, N.H.) led the team with 35 catches for 390 yards and four TDs and junior running back Mitch Banuskevich (Milford, N.H.) added 342 yards on 24 catches and three scores.
Banuskevich and sophomore David Hamilton (Westville, N.J.) will split duty in the backfield. Banuskevich, a four-time honoree on the MASCAC Weekly Honor Roll last fall, led the team with 588 yards on the ground and three rushing TDs, while Hamilton rushed for over 400 yards and four scores.
Sophomore guard Brandt O'Hara (Feeding Hills, Mass.), who earned All-MASCAC Second Team honors last fall, will anchor the offensive line along with classmate Nick Cusano (Wethersfield, Conn.) and juniors Teagan Tirabassi (Attleboro, Mass.) and Andrew Romeo (Salem, Mass.).
The Panther defense should be a strength again this fall. PSU led the nation in turnover margin per game with a 2.50 average in 2016. The Panther backfield will be led by seniors Zach Ziemba (Manchester, N.H.) and Blair Zentek (Simsbury, Conn.) and the 2016 MASCAC Defensive Rookie of the Year, Prince Gbaley (Manchester, N.H.). Ziemba was a four-time MASCAC Weekly Award winner, earning Defensive Player of the Week twice in addition to being selected to the New England Football Writers Division II/III All-New England Team last season. He led the defense with 71 total tackles, while making five interceptions and one fumble recovery. Zentek and Gbaley tied for the league-lead with interceptions and both had two returns for touchdowns as well.
Senior Joe Esposito (Hackettstown, N.J.) and junior Cam McGhee (Winchester, Mass.) will anchor the defensive line. Esposito finished with 55 tackles, five sacks and four forced fumbles, while McGhee finished second in the league with 7.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Junior Luke Yanke (Ashford, Conn.) should also be a solid contributor again this fall.
The Panthers kick off the 2017 slate on Saturday, Sept. 2 (1:00 p.m.) when they welcome Castleton University to Currier Field. Plymouth State, which opened last season with four straight wins, then travels to Mount Ida in week two before heading into MASCAC play.
"There are no easy weeks," noted Castonia. "Our captains have provided good leadership in camp and our goal is to play consistently well."
2017 MASCAC Football Preseason Coaches' Poll
(First Place Votes in Parentheses)
|1.||Bridgewater State (5)||61 points|
|2.||Framingham State (4)||59 points|
|3.||Western Connecticut State||46 points|
|4.||UMass Dartmouth||38 points|
|5.||Plymouth State||35 points|
|6.||Fitchburg State||33 points|
|7.||Massachusetts Maritime||22 points|
|8.||Worcester State||19 points|
|9.||Westfield State||11 points|
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