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BETHANY, W.Va. – With 19 starters returning following their best season since 2001, the Bethany College football program will look to build off last year’s success as they prepare for their second campaign under head coach Tim Weaver.

The former defensive coordinator at Columbia and Harvard, Weaver guided the Bison to a 4-6 overall record and 2-4 mark in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference (PAC) in 2006, the most wins since BC went 6-3 in 2001. And while Weaver enjoyed the accomplishments of last year, which included two victories after rallying from double-digit deficits, he remains very optimistic about the building up of a program that had won just three games in the three years prior to his arrival.

“We enjoyed modest success in our first year and played fairly well at home, which was one of our goals," said Weaver. “One of the biggest positives was that every close game we were in, we won. That means we are on the cusp of changing attitudes here because you have to believe you can win to pull those kinds of games out.

“Looking ahead to this year, one of the biggest improvements we made was on both lines,” said Weaver. “Those were areas we didn’t match up with other teams last year, but we should be improved because we have quite of few guys back and they’ve had another year in the weight room to get stronger.

“Our other area of major improvement is our overall depth,” said Weaver. “Our numbers are where we feel we’ve on healthy footing. And because we have so many players returning, our spring practice saw an increased comfort level with our terminology and schematics, which always helps.”

Although Bethany has eight starters back on offense, they will have a major hole to fill under center. Last year’s QB Brent Owens graduated after throwing for 1,400 yards and 13 touchdowns, while setting a new Bethany single-season record for completion percentage (62.0). Junior Matt Blumer (Sarasota, Fla./Cardinal Mooney) returns after throwing for 436 yards and four scores in limited time last season and will battle three incoming freshmen for the starting position.

Also in the mix for time is senior Milton Joyner (Pittsburgh, Pa./Westinghouse), who usually plays wideout but was pressed into duty last year in the season finale against Washington & Jefferson (Pa.) College and was 18-for-26 for 111 yards.

“We were fortunate to inherit Brent as a senior but now it’s up to us to develop someone,” said Weaver. “Blumer will have a chance to compete for the job but he has to improve. Joyner brings a different skill set to the position and could see time, whether it’s a series, a quarter or a half. We also recruited some freshmen who will have a chance to compete right away. The bright side is, we have four QBs this year as opposed to three last year and none of them are seniors, so we aren’t just developing someone for this year.”

The other big question mark is at running back. Returning are juniors Nick Neratka (Markleysburg, Pa./Uniontown), who ran for 122 yards last year, and Alex Bota (Uniontown, Pa./Laurel Highlands), who rushed for 131, as well as sophomore fullbacks Trevor Litz (Aliquippa, Pa./Center) and Stephen Mott (Lake Oswego, Ore./Lakeridge), but Bethany must improve on a ground game that was ranked seventh in the PAC with just 71.1 yards per contest.

“Running back is another open position going into camp,” said Weaver. “Nobody really separated themselves last year, so it’s a question mark. We recruited some talented backs and they will compete with guys like Bota and Neratka for carries. At fullback, we have Litz and Mott who have developed into guys who play the position well.”

Just like last year, whoever the signal caller is will have a strong, skilled set of receivers to catch passes. Joyner (20 rec., 246 yds., 2 TDs) is back for his fourth year as a starter and looks to move up from his current positions of fourth on Bethany’s all-time receptions list (112) and ninth on the all-time receiving yards list (1,262).

Another returning starter is sophomore Matt Cruse (Naples, Fla./Barron Collier), who was Honorable Mention All-PAC after totaling 35 catches for 475 yards and seven touchdowns. Junior Taylor McNeil (Old Saybrook, Conn.), who hauled in 10 balls for 178 yards and two TDs before missing the final four games because of injury, provides big play ability on the outside with his speed, while senior tight end Mike Elias (Uniontown, Pa./Laurel Highlands), who was Honorable Mention All-PAC after amassing 19 receptions for 150 yards, can line up inside or outside to provide another weapon for the Bison passing game.

“Similar to last year, this is the deepest, most talented position on our team,” said Weaver. “With Joyner, McNeil and Cruse, we have size, speed and athleticism on the outside. Elias gives us flexibility, as he can line up at tight end or receiver. We also have good depth at both spots, especially at tight end with the development late last year of Jorge Laboy (New York, N.Y./Central Park East), who we expect big things from this year.”

Four starters will return along the front line, headlined by junior left guard Brian Liptock (New Salem, Pa./Uniontown), a Second Team All-PAC selection last year. He’s joined on the left side by sophomore tackle Chad Sedlacek (Monaca, Pa.), while the rest of the line’s interior consists of sophomore center Chris Bailey (Pittsburgh, Pa./Shaler) and junior right guard Justin Elkins (Columbus, Ga./Pacelli Catholic). This group’s youth, as well as newfound depth behind another solid recruiting class, is what really gives Weaver high hopes about this area.

“Last year, we thought the line could be an issue, but it’s the complete opposite this year,” said Weaver. “We feel we can be good there this year and into the future since there isn’t a senior in the group of returning starters. They aren’t huge, but are athletic and do what we need them to do. We have a position to fill at right tackle and we hope to upgrade that spot. We also hope with the incoming freshmen, that we can play more linemen this year to continue to develop guys for the future.”

With two starters and a host of veterans returning, the defensive line is also expected to see a boost in production. Sophomore DT John Gyure (Pittsburgh, Pa./Brentwood) was named Honorable Mention All-PAC after he led the team in tackles for loss (nine) and sacks (four). BC’s tackle rotation will include sophomore Brad Hartley (Greensboro, Pa./Mapletown) and senior Quinn Taylor (Harvey, La./Mount Tahoma), while back to fill the end spots are juniors Chris Boland (Cape May Court House, N.J./Middle Township), who had 29 tackles last year, Will Newcomb (Eldora, N.J./Middle Township), who made 10 stops in six games before injuries ended his year, and sophomore Casey Elson (Schnecksville, Pa./Parkland), who moves over from tight end.

“We should be noticeably improved up front defensively,” said Weaver. “We really like our guys at tackle, led by Gyure, who had a great year as a freshman, Hartley, who we think can be very good, and Taylor, who improved and will contribute. On the end, we are excited to have Boland back, Newcomb is healed up from his injuries and Elson comes over after a year at tight end. We also recruited some good players who can help us right away at both spots.”

Bethany’s linebacking corps will have to replace the graduated Cliff Anderson, who led the team with 98 tackles in ’06. However, a sturdy group of playmakers is back, led by senior Bill Wineberg (Pittsburgh, Pa./Shaler), who was second behind Anderson in hits with 75. Senior Kellen Lieb (Farmington, Pa./Uniontown) moves up from safety after recording 56 tackles last year, while senior Chance Kildow (Sistersville, W.Va./Tyler Consolidated), who totaled 57 tackles, and senior Michael Wells (Friendly, W.Va./Tyler Consolidated), who missed five games last year due to injury, also return.

“We have an experienced, productive, talented group back at linebacker, although our concern there is depth because we don’t know who the back-ups are,” said Weaver. “Wineberg is coming off a good year, Lieb seems to be more a natural fit at linebacker than safety and if he stays healthy, Wells could be the best of them all.”

In the secondary, BC brings back all four starters from a group that helped the Bison rank first in the PAC in pass defense (152.4). On the corners are junior Brandon Zeman (Bridgeville, Pa./Chartiers Valley), who was Honorable Mention All-PAC after registering 43 tackles and two interceptions, and sophomore Michael Salters (McKees Rocks, Pa./Sto-Rox), who made 44 stops. The safeties are projected to be senior R.J. Faldowski (Harrisville, Ohio/Buckeye Local), who had 30 tackles and led the team with four INTs, and junior Dante Fuscardo (Follansbee, W.Va./Brooke), who was in on 48 hits. Weaver, who also says to watch out for sophomore Nelson Mitzen (Waynesburg, Pa./Waynesburg Central) and David Abel (Phillipsburg, N.J.), feels much better about this area than he did prior to last year.

“We have all four starters back, so this is a much more stable situation than it was a year ago,” said Weaver. “Salters and Zeman started all 10 games at corner last year and played well. Fuscardo and Faldowski are both athletic, can make the big hit and should be a year better. We also have two sophomores in Mitzen and Abel than we feel good about.”

On special teams, half of the kicking/returning jobs are open going into camp. Elias will be the punter again after averaging 34.5 yards per kick and dropping 10 inside the 20-yard line last year, while McNeil, a two-time PAC Special Teams Player of the Week, will bring back kicks after averaging 25.3 yards over 18 returns, including a 93-yard touchdown against Hiram (Ohio) College. However, the place kicking and punt return jobs both need to be filled.

“Elias will be the punter again and we will probably have a freshman as our kicker, although that is wide open coming into camp,” said Weaver. “We are in good shape on kick returns, as McNeil is a threat to go all the way every time he touches it. But finding a punt returner who will catch the ball is a point of emphasis. We let too many hit the ground last year and lost a lot of field position, so we may go with the two best guys who can catch it and not necessarily hit home runs.” When it comes to goals for the new season, which opens up Sept. 8 at Hiram, Weaver says his team still isn’t in a position to use wins and losses as a barometer for success. While his program goes into the season wanting to win the PAC for the first time since 1980, he will not lose focus on his long-term goal of building the program up to be a legitimate, constant threat to capture the conference crown.

“Our goals are not win-loss oriented right now,” said Weaver. “On the field, we need to improve our running game and also working on stopping the run defensively. Overall, we need to be competitive on a more consistent basis. While it was great to win the close games we were in, we also need to be better than losing by 35 or more three times. I would really like to see us play like we did against Thomas More last year (21-17 win on the road) every week and we should be alright.

“That doesn’t mean that we don’t want to compete for a championship,” said Weaver. “When we have our first team meeting, we will set the goals of winning the PAC and going to the playoffs and we will do everything we can to achieve that goal. However, if and when that isn’t mathematically possible anymore, then we’ll shift gears towards developing players. The program is still in its infancy in building back up and we need to continue building towards winning championships in the future.”