Panthers open season Sept. 1 at Castleton
PLYMOUTH, N.H. – The Plymouth State University football team, fresh off its first Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC) title, has been selected to finish second following a vote of the league's nine head coaches.
PSU, which finished last season as MASCAC Co-Champions with Framingham State University, collected two first place votes to finish with 52 points. Framingham State was voted the preseason favorite after earning five first place votes and 60 points.
Western Connecticut State University, responsible for the Panthers' lone regular season loss in 2017, was picked third with 50 points. Worcester State University (43 points) received one first place vote and was picked fourth, while the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Bridgewater State University tied for fifth with 36 points. The Corsairs received the final first place vote.
Westfield State University (21 points), Massachusetts Maritime Academy (15 points) and Fitchburg State University (11 points) rounded out the poll.
PSU dropped the league-opener to WestConn last fall before rattling off seven straight conference wins, including a dramatic, 16-13 overtime win over Framingham State to earn the league's automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament and garner head coach Paul Castonia his second straight Champion's Choice Coach of the Year award. But the veteran coach, entering his 16th season, has completely turned the page from last season's run to the NCAA Tournament and is solely focused on his week one opponent.
"I know it's a cliché," he said, "but it's one week at a time. Right now we've got to get ready for Castleton."
Plymouth State welcomes back seven starters from a balanced offense that averaged 123.2 yards rushing and 146.6 yards passing through the regular season last year. Senior quarterback Zack Edwards (Brookfield, Mass.) finished last fall with 18 touchdowns against seven interceptions while throwing for 1,575 yards. Junior Jacob Szulc (Concord, N.H.) will likely be the signal caller's top option at receiver. Through the first four games last season Szulc was second in the nation with ten touchdown receptions before injury limited him to just ten catches through the remainder of the year.
Senior Mitch Banuskevich (Milford, N.H.) and juniors David Hamilton (West Deptford, N.J.) and Nick Lancia (Bedford, N.Y.) should carry the bulk of the load at running back. Banuskevich enters the year tenth on PSU's career rushing leaders list with 1,431 yards, and is expected to fill multiple roles for the Panthers this fall. Hamilton rushed for over 350 yards and four touchdowns a year ago, while Lancia appeared in all 11 games and found the end zone once.
Juniors Brandt O'Hara (Feeding Hills, Mass.), Nick Cusano (Wethersfield, Conn.) and CJ Perrino (Rocky Point, N.Y.) and senior Teagan Tirabassi (Attleboro, Mass.) will provide protection up front. The veteran offensive line should give the Panthers plenty of options when it comes to play calling.
"We're expecting more and better from our offense," said Castonia. "We have an experienced offensive line back, along with a running game. We can protect well enough to throw and catch, but we should also be able to run it and control the clock," he added.
The most noticeable personnel changes will be on the defensive side of the ball after the loss of three starting defensive backs and key members of the defensive line. Last year's unit finished the regular season as one of the best scoring defenses in the country, allowing just 9.8 points per game, the fifth lowest in NCAA Division III and easily the lowest mark in the MASCAC.
"Offensively we have more carryover," he said. "Defensively not only do we have new faces as players, but with coaches too, but the goals remain the same: Prevent big plays, tackle well and keep them in front of us."
Senior Grant McGregor (Burlington, Conn.) and junior captain Matt Shea (Atkinson, N.H.) will be called upon to slow down opposing offenses passing games, while seniors Malcolm Huesman (Burlington, Vt.) and Sean Peet (Glen Cove, N.Y.) along with sophomore Elijah Bussell (Athens, Maine) bring experience to the linebacking corps.
Castonia will look for the defensive line to make plays at the line of scrimmage while pressuring the opposing backfield. Seniors Cam McGhee (Winchester, Mass.) and John Devlin (West Islip, N.Y.) and sophomores Zac Garside (Londonderry, N.H.) and Rowan Drew (Plymouth, N.H.) should anchor the group.
Historically, strong special teams play has been a trademark of Castonia's teams, and this season should be no different.
The duo of sophomore Jeremy Martin (Charlton, Mass.) and senior Jeff Madden (Wolfeboro, N.H.) will cover the kicking responsibilities. Last fall Martin earned All-MASCAC Second Team Offense honors as a kicker, while also being named All-MASCAC Second Team Defense as a punter. Senior Brad Rhoades (Epsom, N.H.), who was responsible for one of the team's two return touchdowns last year, will likely be the primary return man.
The Panthers kick off the 2018 season at Castleton University on Sept. 1 (1:00 p.m.). Plymouth State rolled over the Spartans by a 31-7 margin last year. After an early bye week, the green-and-white open the home slate on Sept. 15 against WestConn (1:00 p.m.). Castonia sees the early break as advantageous.
"We'll have camp, play our first game, figure out where we are at and then have two weeks to fix us and get ready for WestConn," he said. "Good teams make their biggest improvements from week one to week two and we have two weeks to do that now."
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