It was no surprise that IUP and Shippensburg were picked as preseason favorites in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference coaches poll, revealed Monday at football media day, hosted by Slippery Rock University.
IUP, the reigning PSAC champions, received seven of a possible eight votes in the Western Division poll. Shippensburg, the 2012 PSAC runner-up, received six of eight votes in the Eastern Division.
"We were co-favorites [with Mercyhurst] last year and shared the conference title, so based on what we did last year, that's why we are the favorite," said IUP coach Curt Cignetti, who is entering his third season . "We have a good group of guys who know what it takes to win a conference title. We just have to be willing to put in the hard work required to have another successful season."
The Crimson Hawks have 14 starters returning from the 2012 squad, which posted a 12-2 record and claimed a share of the PSAC West title. They advanced to the NCAA Division II Super Region One Championship quarterfinals before a heartbreaking 21-17 loss to Winston-Salem State.
"We are hoping to have De'Antwan Williams back in the backfield," said Cignetti, referring to the tailback who rushed for 1,325 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012. "He missed most of the 2011 season with an injury, so we're hoping to get him a fifth year of eligibility. We're still waiting for the NCAA to hand down its decision. It would certainly be great to have him back."
Seven of IUP's returning starters were recognized on the PSAC All-Star team. Offensive linemen Nick Carnicella and Byron Dovales were first-team picks on offense, while wide receiver Pat Brewer was a second-team selection. Linebackers Alex Berdahl and Carl Fleming were voted to the first team on defense, while defensive back Jerell McFadden and lineman Akeem Smith were second-team picks.
Brewer, who caught 25 passes for 421 yards and four touchdowns, is one of eight starters back on offense for the Crimson Hawks. Quarterback Mike Box and receiver Terrill Barnes also are back. Box completed 111 of 214 passes for 1,747 yards and 13 touchdowns. Barnes caught 43 passes for 764 yards and eight touchdowns.
Mercyhurst was second in the preseason poll. The Lakers shared the PSAC West crown with IUP last season and finished with a 9-2 record. Ten starters are back, five on each side of the ball. The Lakers' top returnees are tailback Brandon Brown-Dukes, who rushed for 1,295 yards and 16 touchdowns, and quarterback Anthony Vendemia, who completed 115 of 211 passes for 1,938 yards and 17 touchdowns.
"The whole league is really tough," Cignetti said. "Mercyhurst was really good last year and they have a lot of talented kids back.
Slippery Rock was real young last year, so coach [George] Mihalik has most of his starters back. And you can't forget about California, Edinboro and Clarion. And of course Gannon beat us last year, so you can't look past any team in the West. You have to be ready to play at a high level every week."
Slippery Rock has nine starters back on each side of the ball, including five players who were voted to the PSAC All-Star second team.
California has 11 starters back, including four recognized on the PSAC first team and another on the second team.