Five storylines for district Division III football season
Washington & Jefferson and Case Western Reserve won first-round games in the NCAA Division III playoffs last season. Presidents coach Mike Sirianni said, to his knowledge, only one other conference had two NCAA qualifiers win in the first round in 2017.
The Presidents’ Athletic Conference, despite the loss of Thomas More, figures to be competitive at the top again with W&J, CWRU and Westminster jockeying for the title. And the sudden turnaround of Grove City potentially puts another team in the conference championship mix.
In the North Coast Athletic Conference, meanwhile, no one will sleep on Allegheny. The one-time perennial doormat showed explosiveness on offense and closed the gap on some of the conference’s heavyweights.
Here are five things to watch this season in Division III:
Thomas More won or shared the PAC title eight times during its 13-season stay in the league (2005-17). But the Saints left after last season, leaving W&J and its record 25 conference titles as the natural favorite.
Sirianni, however, doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be more focused on us,” he said. “Our past success doesn’t guarantee us anything in the future. But it’s better to be the people who are the hunted.”
Grove City, which adopted coach Andrew DiDonato’s “Brick by brick” motto, ended a 33-game losing streak last season and went .500 (4-4) in the PAC.
The Wolverines will look to take the next step, led by the young skill combo of junior quarterback Randall LaBrie (Montour), junior running back Wesley Schools and sophomore receiver Cody Gustafson, the PAC Newcomer of the Year last season.
“This year, I feel like we come into it expecting to win games,” LaBrie said.
Big shoes to fill
Carnegie Mellon returns record-setting quarterback Alex Cline, but the Tartans must find a running game to keep defenses honest. Sam Benger, who established a program record with 5,386 career rushing yards, graduated.
His primary backup the past three seasons was Rory Hubbard, so he likely will get his share of touches. Last season, Hubbard rushed for 286 yards and three touchdowns and returned a kickoff for a score.
Willie Richter and Chris Haas, both juniors, also are candidates.
Dialing the 412
Third-year Allegheny coach B.J. Hammer has helped the program take steps forward in his first two seasons. To help keep the Gators growing, Hammer said he is recruiting the WPIAL more heavily.
He got proof of how much the area can help last season: Three of the four Gators who earned All-NCAC honors were from the WPIAL: RB Tyler Balla (Greensburg Central Catholic), DB Chase Balla (Valley) and DE Colten Buzard (Valley).
Several others, such as DL Marcus Davenport (Valley) and LB Corey Laskey (Seneca Valley), were significant contributors.
The current Gators roster has 23 WPIAL players, 20 who came aboard since Hammer arrived.
With Thomas More gone, the PAC schedule is balanced again.
The Saints made the PAC an 11-team league, so only eight games counted toward the standings and conference foes routinely played each other in games that didn’t count toward the standings. And not everyone played everyone else, which sometimes turned out to be an advantage. Last season, for example, Case Western Reserve, the conference co-champion at 8-0, didn’t play W&J (8-0) or Thomas More (5-3).
“It was the luck of the draw,” Westminster coach Scott Benzel said. “Now we get a true champion.”