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Saxons seek to build on momentum, repeat as Empire 8 champions
8/26/10

ALFRED, NY — The 2010 Alfred University football team will look to build on the momentum created by last year’s breakthrough season, when the Saxons claimed their first-ever Empire 8 Conference crown and an appearance in the NCAA championship tournament.

The Saxons will be motivated by their 2009 season, in which they went 8-2 (4-1 Empire 8) and ended the year losing at home to Albright in the first round of the NCAA tournament. It was only the second NCAA appearance in school history and the 2010 team, which returns 32 letterwinners (14 starters) is eager to make it a third.

“Our goal is to win the Empire 8 championship, back-to-back, and make it back to the NCAAs,” remarked Dave Murray, set to begin his 13th season as AU head coach.

When AU takes the field against visiting Widener on Sept. 4, it will do so without two of the greatest playmakers in team history: All-American wide receiver Jared Manzer and standout tailback Vinson Hendrix. While the duo will be missed, AU returns star junior quarterback Tom Secky (Bemus Point, Maple Grove) and most of a defense that allowed only 134 yards rushing a year ago and should be even stingier this season.

Manzer, the 2009 Empire 8 Player of the Year, left Alfred holding virtually all major receiving records and was also named First Team All-Empire 8 as a wide receiver, defensive back and all-purpose runner, and Hendrix ranks second on the AU career rushing list and was a First Team Empire 8 all-star last year.

In Manzer and Hendrix “we lost two of the best skill kids in the country. Both were the kind of player who could take a six-yard gain and turn it into a 60-yard gain,” Murray said. “We won’t be able to replace them. We’re looking for a group of players who can provide numbers in the same ballpark.”

With Manzer and Hendrix gone, the success of the offense falls squarely on Secky’s shoulders. Murray has no doubt about the 6-5 junior’s ability to lead. Named a captain this year, Secky has performed well since being named a starter his freshman season. He has steadily climbed up the school career passing charts and after only two full seasons, already ranks third all-time in passing yardage. In 2009, he threw for 1,941 yards and 26 touchdowns while completing nearly 64 percent of his passes.

“He’s is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Each year he’s developed a batter command of our offense and makes sure we’re in a good play for every snap we take,” Murray said. “He’s a terrific competitor who is very comfortable in pressure situations.”

Secky, the Empire 8’s First Team quarterback in 2009 and the conference Rookie of the Year in 2008, will be throwing to a young and largely inexperienced receiving corps. Senior Ryan Thon (Victor, NY/Victor) had 41 catches for 502 yards and four touchdowns in 2009, his first season as a starter.

“Ryan Thon was our second wide receiver last year and he and (Secky) have really developed a good chemistry,” Murray commented.

In addition to Thon, the Saxons will look to a host of young receivers to bolster the passing game. Speedy sophomore Andre McCloud (Bath, NY/Haverling), who saw significant time in 2009 as a return man is set to move from defensive back to wide receiver this season and may start opposite Thon.

McCloud’s “biggest asset is his breakaway speed,” said Murray, who hopes McCloud can use his quickness to produce big plays in the passing game.

The Saxons, as they did last year, will often employ three-wideout sets. Competing for time at receiver along with Thon and McCloud will be senior T.J. VanEtten (Walworth, NY/East Rochester), junior Rich Reagan (Penfield, NY/Webster Schroeder), sophomore Nick Spadaro (Clay, NY/Cicero-North Syracuse), and freshmen Josh Phillips (Syracuse, NY/West Genesee), Adam Brien (Victor, NY/Victor) and Sean McAllister (Queensbury, NY/Queensbury).

“We’re deep at the wide receiver position with a lot of quality athletes,” Murray said.

Senior tight end D.J. Loughlin-Pope (Corning, NY/Corning East) could play a greater role in the passing game. A two-time Empire 8 all-star (Second Team in 2008; honorable mention last year) and a solid blocker, Loughlin-Pope saw his production drop off a bit in 2009, when he caught seven passes for 73 yards and three TDs. Junior Adam Schutz (Geneva, NY/Geneva) will also see time at tight end, most often in passing situations.
“(Loughlin-Pope) is an outstanding blocker with very good hands. (Schutz) brings wide receiver skills to the position. He’s very quick with good hands,” Murray said.

A group of four tailbacks will look to replace Hendrix in the backfield. The most experienced of the group is sophomore Chris Lopez (Rochester, NY/Pittsford-Sutherland). Serving as Hendrix’s backup in 2009, he ran for 261 yards on 55 carries. Redshirt freshman Chuck Beckwith (Victor, NY/Victor) was competing with Lopez for the backup job last fall when an injury suffered in the preseason ended his year. Two newcomers — freshmen Austin Dwyer (Hornell, NY/Hornell) and Joe McMurry (South Glens Falls/Hudson Falls) are also competing for time at tailback.

“Any of those four could see playing time on varsity,” Murray said. “All have a little different running style, each with different strengths. As with the receiver position, we have a lot of quality depth at tailback, which we’re very excited about.”

Competing for the starting fullback job are seniors Justin McCombs (Mumford, NY/Caledonia-Mumford) and Adam Chaney (Horseheads, NY/Horseheads) and freshman Brandon Yarnes (Cuba, NY/Portville).
The offensive line lost two of five starters (right tackle Dave Carletta and left guard Eric Manning), both all-Empire 8 selections in 2009. The three returnees — senior Zach Morgan (Homer, NY/Homer), the right tackle last year, moves over to the left side, and senior Jeff VanDewalker (Cicero, NY/Cicero-North Syracuse), returns to play center. Senior Ryan Rusczak Elmira, NY/Elmira Southside), a starter at left guard in 2009, will play on the right side this season. Also competing for time on the line will be sophomores Justin Mesi (Orchard Park, NY/Orchard Park) and Nick Fabrizi (Binghamton, NY/Binghamton), juniors Harold Spetla (Tupper Lake, NY/Tupper Lake) and Tim Demersman (Rochester, NY/Rush-Henrietta) and freshman Ryan DiFlavio (West Seneca, NY/West Seneca West). Mesi looks to be the starter at left guard, while Spetla, Demersman, Fabrizi and DiFlavio are competing for time at right tackle.

“We’re very pleased with our first group (of offensive linemen). It’s very solid,” Murray said. “We need to develop more quality depth, because as the season goes on, you need it.”

Murray hopes to run a balanced offense and has the personnel to be effective on the ground and through the air.

“We have tailbacks who can carry the ball and a quarterback who can throw it,” he said. “We have the potential to be a very good offensive team.”

The Saxon defense will be a big strength in 2010, particularly at linebacker. While the team lost three-year starter Marc Mangovski —who played inside in last year’s 3-4 scheme, three starters — each of them all-Empire 8 picks in 2009, return. Junior outside linebacker Nick Clark (Canisteo, NY/Canisteo-Greenwood) earned Empire 8 and ECAC Northwest First Team honors after leading the team with 76 tackles (team-best 7.5 for loss), and senior outside linebacker Chad Pieri (LeRoy, NY/Caledonia-Mumford) a four-year starter, had 51 stops (team-high three sacks) en route to being named a Second Team conference all-star. Junior inside linebacker Wes Smith (Turbotville, PA/Muncy) had 59 tackles (fifth on the team) in 2009, his first year as a starter, and earned Second Team Empire 8 honors.

“As a group, these linebackers are as good as any we’ve had here,” said Murray. “They all have experience and are very, very good players. They’re competitive, physical and strong: all characteristics you look for in a linebacker.”

Others competing for time at linebacker are juniors Brady Bonaquisti (LeRoy, NY/LeRoy), Darrick Mason (Driftwood, PA/Cameron County) and Dan Haasis (Rochester, NY/Greece Olympia) and freshman Steve Kijowski (North Tonawanda, NY/North Tonawanda) and Dustyn Power (Farmington, NY/Victor).

The defensive line lost starting tackle Jerry Bond, by returns four players who saw significant time in 2009. They include sophomore nose guard Mike Raplee (Dundee, NY/Dundee), who earned honorable mention from the conference after finishing his freshman year with 41 tackles (six for loss, two sacks). Raplee “is as talented a nose guard as I’ve had here,” Murray commented.

Sophomore end Chris Steeves (Rochester, NY/Gates-Chili) started as a freshman and had 25 tackles. Junior end Marcellus Jones (Lancaster, NY/Lancaster) and junior tackle Torrance Jones (Rochester, NY/Marshall) are two-year letterwinners who played in all 10 games last year, finishing with 32 and 12 tackles, respectively.

Also competing for time on the defensive line are ends, junior Charlie Engleka (Buffalo, NY/Bishop Timon), sophomore Isaiah Brown (Washingtonville, NY/Washingtown) and freshman Justin Collen (Averill Park, NY/Averill Park), and tackles, sophomore Joe Dentino (Rochester, NY/Gates-Chili) and freshman Pat Teta (Avon, NY/Avon).

“We have lot of good experience up front,” Murray said of his defensive linemen. “Their strength is their quickness. With today’s offenses being more spread, these guys are built to defend that type of attack.”

To improve on its pass defense — the Saxons allowed just over 210 yards per contest through the air in 2009 — AU will have to improve its pass rush. The Saxons managed a mere 12 sacks in 2009, down from 30 the previous season. With two starters lost from the secondary — including Manzer, who led the team in interceptions and passes defended in 2009 — it’s even more imperative AU put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. “Our sacks were down last year, and so were our tackles for loss,” Murray said. “We brought less pressure last year. Teams have kind of adjusted to our type of defense and are max protecting or getting rid of the ball quicker. I think our speed will help bring those numbers up. But how (the secondary) plays man coverage is going to dictate how often we bring pressure.”

Indeed, defensive backfield play will impact how much the Saxons improve their pass defense. Both starting cornerbacks from 2009 — junior Roland O’Brien (Hoosick Falls, NY/Hoosick Falls) and Alec Currier (Peru, NY, Peru) — return, although Currier is tabbed to be moved to free safety. O’Brien had 60 tackles last year (tied for second on the team) had one interception. Currier also had 60 stops to go with three interceptions (all three coming in a win against St. Lawrence).

Returning players looking to step in and play in the defensive backfield include sophomore cornerback Jon Jackson (East Amherst, NY/Bishop Timon), sophomore strong safety Reggie Pressley (Rochester, NY/Gates-Chili), junior strong safety Matt Mazur (Marcy, NY/Whitesboro), and junior cornerback Ryan Quinliven (Endicott, NY/Union-Endicott). Mazur and Pressley (one interception) had 16 and 15 tackles, respectively, and Jackson had seven. Newcomers vying for time in the secondary include freshman cornerback Chris Gibbs (Whitesboro, NY/Whitesboro), and freshman free safeties David Lee Tack (Newark, NY/Newark) and Andy Ruddock (Attica, NY/Attica).

“With a year’s experience, we expect our (returning) defensive backs to improve, and we have some solid new players,” Murray said. “They’ve had a good preseason and we’re hoping for continued improved play in the fall. We have a strong run defense and teams know that. We have to be able to stop the pass. Our front seven is one of the better units we’ve had here,” Murray continued. “We hope our secondary progresses. If they do, we expect to have a very strong defensive unit this year.”

Special teams will see plenty of new faces in 2010. Junior Eric Rockwood (Allegany, NY/Allegany-Limestone), a Second Team conference all-star in 2009, will compete with sophomore Andy Nichols (Hilton, NY/Hilton) and freshmen Cody Gustin (Wellsville, NY/Wellsville) and Zach Tavolaro (Manlius, NY/Fayetteville-Manlius) for the starting placekicker job.

Two-time all-conference punter Pete Marley was lost to graduation and sophomore Matt Girolmo (Livonia, NY/Livonia) is the leading candidate to take his place. Gustin or Raplee could also see time as punter.

Manzer was the team’s primary kickoff and punt return man in 2009, and Hendrix also dropped back on kickoffs. McCloud, who averaged 23 yards on kick returns and O’Brien 13.5 yards on punt returns (one touchdown) are in line to become primary return men this season. Dwyer and sophomore tailback Alfonzo Watkins (Rochester, NY/Franklin) could also return kicks.

“Our special teams has open competition across the board. It’s really a work in progress, but we expect it will be a strength for us again,” Murray said.

Murray concedes his team has its work cut out if it wants to return to the top of the Empire 8 and the NCAA tournament. AU is picked in the Empire 8 preseason coaches poll to finish second behind St. John Fisher. The Saxons are unranked in the initial preseason national poll for Division III teams, but did receive the most votes among Empire 8 schools.

“There are a number of teams that could win the Empire 8, so we really have to look at our schedule one game at a time,” Murray said. “If we can stay healthy, limit our turnovers and costly penalties, we feel we have as good a chance as anyone to win the conference.”

In addition to facing the usually challenging Empire 8 slate (home games with St. John Fisher (Oct. 23) and Ithaca (Nov. 6) and away games against Springfield (Sept. 25), Hartwick (Oct. 9) and Utica (Nov. 13), the Saxons have non-conference matchups at home against Widener (Sept. 4), Frostburg State (Oct. 2) and Rochester (Oct. 30) and at St. Lawrence (Sept. 18) and RPI Oct. 16). AU will be playing home games on the newly-renovated Merrill Field, which over the summer had a new FieldTurf surface installed, along with new bleachers and press box. The new field will be christened in the team’s season opener, Sept. 4 at noon against Widener.