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FULLY-STOCKED BISON LOOK TO POST BIG NUMBERS IN ‘09
August 16 - BETHANY, W.Va. – Numbers will be the main theme for the Bethany football team in the 2009 season, as they enter preseason camp with the largest roster in school history and try to maintain a potent offense while attempting to improve on the defensive side of the ball.
Last year in their third season under head coach Tim Weaver, the Bison finished 3-7 overall and 1-5 in the PAC. Those numbers are deceiving however, as BC lost three games in the final two minutes, including two on the final snap. The offense continued to surge, as that unit set single-season school records for points scored (280) and passing yards (2,548), but the defense ranked ninth in the conference in points allowed, rushing and total defense.
Perhaps the biggest number for Weaver and his staff is the number of players who will suit up. The 50 returning upperclassmen will be joined by more than 100 newcomers in camp, by far the largest roster in Bethany’s history. According to Weaver, the numbers are due to the hard work of many, as well as the recognition that Bison football is on the rise.
“When you have this successful of a year recruiting, the credit goes to a bunch of people,” said Weaver, who has an 11-19 record in his three years at the helm. “This was not due to mass recruiting. Every kid that’s coming was a target who we sat down with and got to know. Credit first goes to the assistant coaches, who do the leg work, meet the families and sell the product, which we think is very, very good. Our current players also played a role because whether they’re helping with campus visits or talking with their former high school coaches and teammates back home, they are very positive about what’s going on with the entire program.
“We also had a lot of help with people not directly tied in the program, like our admissions staff, who did a great job getting all the processes done and helping families through the financial aid process,” said Weaver. “And this isn’t possible without help at the top. (Bethany President) Dr. Scott Miller’s commitment to change is evident by the drastic improvement in our facilities. This place looks a lot different than it did when I was hired. That commitment at the institutional level starts this whole process.”
Perhaps the only thing bigger than the number of incoming players to the Bison program was the amount of points they posted on the scoreboard last fall. Bethany scored 31 or more points in six different games last season and the record book was under siege throughout the campaign. Rising sophomore QB Chad Smith (Washington, Pa.) was instrumental in the attack, as he threw for 2,302 yards, second-most in BC single-season history, and 16 touchdowns and his return this year marks the first time in Coach Weaver’s tenure that the Bison will have the same starting signal caller for a second consecutive season.
“This is the first time as a staff we have any semblance of order at that position coming into camp and we feel very good about Chad,” said Weaver. “He is on pace to write a whole new record book for passing at Bethany. He has natural leadership abilities, a great arm and is very good to coach. There will be a strong competition in camp to see who the back-ups are behind him.”
Smith is joined in the backfield by a bevy of talented runners. Sophomore Eric Walker (New Brighton, Pa.) ran for 714 yards and tied the BC single-season record with 10 rushing TDs, while junior Marcus Santini (Seminole, Fla.) turned in a second straight strong campaign with 398 yards and four touchdowns on the ground and 260 receiving yards and four scores through the air. Coupled with some freshmen that bring game-breaking ability to the field, Weaver says the running back situation is strong.
“We have two good ones in Walker and Santini, who will finish at or near the top of rushing categories by the time they’re finished,” said Weaver. “They both have good balance and run hard, but their strength isn’t breaking too may long ones. We were able to recruit a couple exciting backs who can be home run hitters and add another dimension to our rushing attack.”
Bethany already boasts one of the conference’s top deep threats at wide receiver in senior Matt Cruse (Naples, Fla./Barron Collier). Despite missing three games because of injury last season, the three-time All-PAC selection caught 42 balls for 721 yards and five TDs, which gives him 21 scoring receptions in his career to set a new Bethany record. Other upperclassmen in the mix for time include junior Randy Rankin (Uniontown, Pa./Laurel Highlands), who had 13 catches for 146 yards and two scores last year, and sophomore Jeff Joyce (Pittsburgh, Pa./Baldwin), who completed a change from QB in the spring. Weaver added that a talented group of freshmen will make the receiving corps deep and talented.
“Cruse is one of the top playmakers in the PAC and he has a good chance at some more records,” said Weaver. “We feel like we have to get touches for Joyce, who has a ton of upside after completing a switch from quarterback in the spring. Rankin has shown flashes, but needs to become much more consistent. We also have quite a few freshmen who have a lot of skills and we’re anxious to see how they develop.”
Adding to the playmakers is tight end Jorge Laboy (New York, N.Y./Central Park East). The 6-4, 250-pound senior had 43 receptions last year for 433 yards and three scores, which helped earn a pair of preseason All-American honors, including Second Team distinction from D3Football.com.
“Jorge has worked really hard every day since coming here and it really paid off last year,” said Weaver. “While the preseason recognition is nice, he knows it means he has to continue to work that hard to live up to those expectations and have a big season.”
Supplying the power for the offense is the line, where Bethany returns four players who started much of last season, although they did suffer a loss when junior RT Bob Rovnanik (Springdale, Pa.) was ruled out for the season because of injury. At one bookend is senior LT Chad Sedlacek (Monaca, Pa.), who is also a captain this year, while a pair of sophomores saw a lot of time at guard in Brandyn Frey (Richmond, Ohio/Steubenville) and Cory Potter (Akron, Ohio/Green). Senior Chris Bailey (Pittsburgh, Pa./Shaler) has started more than 25 games at center in his career.
“The offensive line is one of the anchors we wanted to build on from our first day,” said Weaver. “In the last three years, we’ve gone from allowing nearly 50 sacks to just 20 and tripled our rushing output in the last two years. We bring a lot of experience back this year and we feel real good about where we are. Sedlacek is a four-year starter and captain this year. Bailey has started a bunch of games over his career. And Frey and Potter are big, tough, athletic guys who could be better than anyone we’ve had.”
Bethany’s defensive problems last year started up front, as injuries to projected starting tackles Brad Hartley (Greensboro, Pa./Mapletown) and Matt Swartling (New Martinsville, W.Va./Magnolia) kept them out either all (Hartley) or the majority (Swartling) of the season. However, they are healthy now and with seniors Dan Gigler (Pittsburgh, Pa./Shaler) and Tim Stefanizzi (Brave, Pa./Waynesburg Central) and sophomores Bobby McConnell (Wheeling, W.Va./Wheeling Park) and Kasib Tallib-Din (New York, N.Y./Central Park East) manning the ends, Weaver expects more from the front line.
“We are cautiously optimistic about the defensive line,” said Weaver. “Missing Hartley, who is a captain this year, and Swartling for almost all of last year was a big blow we never really recovered from. But they appear healthy now and we recruited some depth, so we think we’re in good shape.
“At the ends, McConnell showed flashes at times as a freshman, but also battled through injuries and Tallib-Din had a really good spring and stayed here this summer to keep working for the season,” said Weaver. “We also have steady vets in Gigler and Stefanizzi who have played a lot of football in their careers.”
Quality play will be needed from the linebacker position this season if Bethany is to show improvement defensively. After three years and two All-PAC selections at defensive tackle, senior John Gyure (Pittsburgh, Pa./Brentwood) makes the position change, which comes after he led the Bison with 8.5 sacks last year. The other positions will be decided in camp, with Weaver really liking the freshmen class’ size and ability.
“There isn’t a nice way to say this, but our production must improve at linebacker because we were not good there last year,” said Weaver. “Moving Gyure off the defensive line appears to have worked and he took to it better than expected in the spring. The rest of the returning players will compete with a big, tough group of freshmen.”
Senior CB Michael Salters (McKees Rocks, Pa./Sto-Rox), a three-year starter who broke up 11 passes last season, and senior FS Nelson Mitzen (Waynesburg, Pa./Waynesburg Central), a Second Team All-PAC choice a year ago after leading BC with 91 tackles and three interceptions, will be expected to lead the secondary. However, Weaver says more production will be needed, not just from them, but from the entire defensive backfield.
“This is another area we have to be better,” said Weaver. “We have two steady seniors in Salters and Mitzen who have proven they can succeed, but we will challenge them to be better, provide more leadership and make more plays. Other than those two, there will be a lot of open reps in camp. We’ll let the recruiting class battle with the returners and get the best 4-6 guys out there, depending on the situation.”
The special teams will be filled mostly by returning players, with the exception of kicker. Smith will do double-duty again, as he’ll handle punting duties again unless a freshman steps up in camp. The kicker spot is wide open, with as many as four in the mix for that position. And the return game looks solid with Joyce and Cruse back to return punts and Joyce and Walker to bring back kickoffs.
“Smith is back at punter, although we would like to take it off his plate,” said Weaver. “Like every year, we’ll have auditions and try to find one. If Chad does punt again, even though it’s not easy to do both, we’ll challenge him to do a better job. Kicker is an open competition. We’ll have three or four players going for it and if we need one to handle kicks and another to kickoff, that’s what we’ll do.
“We have a lot of veterans who returned last year in Joyce, Cruse, Rankin and Walker and they did ok,” said Weaver. But we’re excited about some of the young guys and there’s enough skill and talent coming in that we should be able to find someone to do it well.”
Even though the PAC produced two NCAA playoff teams a year ago in champ Thomas More and Washington & Jefferson, Weaver says the league may be more competitive this year than in recent history and that includes his Bison possibly staying in the race this season under the right circumstances.
“This should be a great year in the conference because Thomas More is at the top, although they aren’t as clear a favorite as the league has had in the past,” said Weaver. “They have a lot of talent back, including a veteran quarterback, so they’ll be a tough team to beat. And you know W&J is always a good team, but they had some steep graduation losses. Even though they have talent in the pipeline to just plug in, losing a quarterback like (Bobby) Swallow will not be easy to overcome.
“But including W&J, I don’t think there is a big separation between anyone else,” said Weaver. “And I believe we’re right in the mix. We were very competitive last year and if we catch a couple breaks, last year looks very different. If those breaks go our way this year, there’s no reason we can’t take the next step and make this our big turnaround year.”