By Steve Jones
In November 2012, Johns Hopkins saw firsthand what the top Division III team in the nation looked like when it faced Mount Union in its second-round NCAA tournament game. Although the Blue Jays lost to the eventual national champions, they proved they belonged at the top level of D-III football.
A year later, Johns Hopkins is expected to win its fifth consecutive Centennial Conference championship, which would put coach Jim Margraff's team in the NCAA tournament for the fourth time since 2009. But Margraff, whose team opens at Randolph Macon Sept. 7, said he didn't mind those high expectations.
"Expectations are a good thing, and our guys have worked incredibly hard through the spring and summer," said Margraff, whose Blue Jays are ranked 17th in the D3football.com preseason poll. "We're getting used to the idea of being [in the NCAA tournament], and our guys really like being there."
The Hopkins offense lost top rusher Jonathan Rigaud (1,555 yards rushing, 22 touchdowns in 2012) to graduation, but still has plenty of firepower. Sophomore running back Brandon Cherry (252 yards on 55 carries) will replace Rigaud as the feature back. Senior quarterback Robbie Matey, who passed for nearly 2,500 yards in 2012, will throw to classmate Daniel Wodicka, who caught a team-high 94 passes for 867 yards last season.
They will run and pass behind an offensive line that might be one of the nation's best. Senior tackle Armand Jenifer is a first-team preseason All-American, and one national publication ranked him as the top NFL prospect among all Division III players. Senior center Ben Cranston received second-team preseason All-America recognition.
"Both Armand and Ben are very athletic and very bright," Margraff said. "Our offensive line is well coached, and these guys want to reach the level of the guys who came before them, and surpass them if possible."
The Blue Jay defense sustained several losses, including a pair of standouts in linebacker Taylor Maciow and safety Adam Schweyer. But all four starting defensive linemen have returned, and the Blue Jays are counting on contributions from senior safety John Arena and junior linebacker Hani Annabi, who combined for 119 tackles.
"We lost the conference's Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year, and we have a lot of people to replace," Margraff said. "But we've got good returnees and good depth, and I really like the path we're on now."
The Blue Jays aren't the only state team in the preseason national rankings. Salisbury, a postseason participant during each of the last three years, is a consensus top 20 choice. The Sea Gulls, who finished 9-3 in 2012, graduated a load of talent, including leading rushers Joe Benedetti, Dan Griffin and Ross Flanigan. Those three players combined for nearly 2,400 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns last season.
Coach Sherman Wood's club, ranked 16th in the preseason D3football.com national poll, will be hard-pressed to replicate its offensive output. But the Sea Gulls should be solid defensively, with the return of three top-notch defensive backs. Senior Andre Carter, a preseason second-team All-American, had 18 pass breakups and 42 tackles last season. Junior Steven Gamble and senior Greg Stanton combined for 150 tackles.
Looking For Improvement
Several area football programs are hoping to turn the corner this fall.
Morgan State entered mid-October 2012 with a 3-2 mark, but dropped its last six games on the way to its third straight losing season. The Bears, who open at Army Aug. 30, will be hard-pressed to replace their two best players from last season, running back Travis Davidson (958 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns) and linebacker Elandon Roberts. A 2012 finalist for the Jerry Rice Award, Roberts led the team with 107 tackles.
But coach Donald Hill-Eley's squad returns several key defensive playmakers who should help with the transition. Senior cornerback Joe Rankin had a team-leading five interceptions, while a pair of sophomores, Damarco Bisbee and Christopher Robinson, combined for 81 tackles and 12 sacks a year ago.
The uncertainty comes on the offensive side of the ball. Morgan switched quarterbacks midway through the season, installing junior Robert Council as the starter. Council, the team's second-leading rusher, also wound up passing for 1,115 yards. Challenging him will be junior Seth Higgins, who started the first five games last season.
Bowie State, the only NCAA Division II school in Maryland, returns 16 starters from last year's 5-5 team. Coach Damon Wilson's Bulldogs will rely heavily on three standout defensive returnees: senior safety Delante White (53 tackles in 2012), sophomore linebacker Antoine Young (team-leading 91 tackles) and sophomore defensive back Curtis Pumphrey (six interceptions). Junior tailback Keith Brown (564 yards rushing) and senior quarterback Jared Johnston (897 passing yards) will be offensive keys for Bowie State, who open Sept. 7 at St. Anselm.
During each of its first two seasons as an NCAA Division III program, Stevenson has finished with a 2-8 record. But the 2012 Mustangs showed improvement, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Junior K.K. Smith is an effective offensive weapon for the Mustangs, who host North Carolina Wesleyan for their Sept. 6 opener. Smith had a heavy load of 244 carries for 1,357 yards and 11 touchdowns, as well as one receiving touchdown, last fall. Smith will team with sophomore quarterback John Gasparovic, who completed more than 56 percent of his passes after earning the starting job midway through the 2012 season. Gasparovic's primary target will be senior wide receiver Jeromie Miller, who averaged 15.1 yards on his 29 catches last fall.
The linebacker corps, which returns leading tacklers Tim Campbell and Razonte Dunn, also welcomes back redshirt sophomore Donnell Brown, who was the team's top tackler in 2011, but was injured and lost for the season during the first game of the 2012 campaign.
"We'd like to see K.K.'s workload decrease, so that in the fourth quarter, he'll be fresh and able to close out games," said head coach Ed Hottle, who is entering his third year at the Mustangs' helm. "I don't see a reason why we won't take another step. We settled into a nice rotation by the middle of last season, and we're almost two deep at every spot with guys that have collegiate experience."
During head coach Mike Hoyt's first season, McDaniel lost all 10 games. That shouldn't happen again, as long as senior running back Joe Rollins continues to progress. Despite missing the season opener last fall, Rollins led the Green Terror in every rushing category, gaining 1,243 yards on 204 carries. The young defense, which surrendered more than 36 points per game in 2012, brings back two cornerstones in senior linebackers Mike Cousar (team-leading 98 tackles in 2012) and Erik Klugh (71 tackles).
The Green Terror, who will host Catholic University during their Sept. 7 season opener, will start sophomore Ryan Yamada, junior Nick Valori or junior Seth McFall at quarterback. All three players earned playing time in 2012.
Less than a generation ago, the athletic directors at Baltimore-area colleges came from the coaching ranks. Billy Hunter entered Towson University after a long and distinguished career in the dugout, which included stints as the third base coach of the Baltimore Orioles, the manager of the Texas Rangers and the head coach of Towson's baseball team. Joe Boylan was a top college basketball assistant at American University and Rutgers before coming to Loyola, while longtime men's basketball coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell also served as the athletic director at Coppin State. Charles Brown, who coached wrestling at New York's Hunter College, completed a 24-year career at UMBC in June.
But during the last 10 years, the athletic director's chair has increasingly become occupied by administrators who have spent their careers on the business side of athletics, rather than coaching. The recent hiring of Tim Leonard at Towson continued that trend.
Leonard, who came to Towson after five years at Southern Methodist University, joins a group of Baltimore-area athletic directors with experience in fundraising and marketing. The backgrounds of Morgan State's Floyd Kerr, Coppin State's Derrick Ramsey, Loyola's Jim Paquette and UMBC's Tim Hall are more closely aligned with Leonard than were the backgrounds of their predecessors at their respective schools.
Leonard, who will start at Towson Aug. 19, will lead a department that has had its share of highs and lows during recent years. The rise of Towson's fortunes in football, men's basketball, and men's and women's lacrosse stands in stark contrast with an athletic department, and a university, that was deeply wounded by an attempt to eliminate two of the school's longest-standing and successful sports, baseball and men's soccer.
During his introductory press conference, Leonard indicated that he would spend some time assessing Towson athletics before enacting his own initiatives.
"For the first few months on the job, my plan is to listen, learn and then lead," said Leonard, a Boise State graduate. "I want to develop an athletic program that is co-curricular. I believe that athletics is not just a learning lab for the 400-500 student-athletes on campus, but is also a vital part of the undergraduate experience at a university."
While the University of Maryland men's soccer team has become an NCAA tournament staple, its sister school in Catonsville has also made its mark. UMBC reached the postseason for the second time in three years last fall, and looks primed to make another run.
Entering his 23rd season in Catonsville, coach Pete Caringi Jr. welcomes back eight starters from last year's 11-4-7 team, which lost to North Carolina during an NCAA second-round matchup. Senior Phil Saunders, who posted a sterling 0.72 goals-allowed average in 2012, should be able to keep opposing teams off the scoreboard. At the offensive end, senior forward Pete Caringi III (team-leading 14 goals, 32 points) will be counted on to provide the bulk of the scoring.
Loyola nearly became the third state team in the 2012 NCAA postseason. Only a double-overtime loss to Niagara during the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship game prevented the Greyhounds from advancing to the postseason.
Loyola enters the Patriot League this fall and will depend on its returning top two scorers, forwards Larry Ndjock (13 goals, three assists in 2012) and Connor Thompson (seven goals, six assists), to ensure success in its new league. But coach Mark Mettrick will have to replace graduated goalkeeper Thurman Van Riper, who held opponents to fewer than one goal per game.
Issue 180: August 2013