District football preview: Same old story?

The season begins familiarly for West favorite IUP, but it's the ending that counts

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Like many of his peers, IUP coach Curt Cignetti doesn't give much credence to preseason polls.

In the coaching fraternity, wins always trump potential and prognostications, the very things that are embodied by such polls. It's a familiar creed.

"At the end of the year, it's all going to sort itself out," Cignetti said. "It will be won or lost on the football field."

Entering the 2014 Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference season, those same polls gave his team a vote of confidence. Yet again.

Despite having to replace several key players from a year ago, the Crimson Hawks are the preseason favorite for the third year in a row to win the conference's Western Division, receiving five of a possible eight first-place votes.

In 2013, IUP fell short of such goals, finishing 9-2 overall and 5-2 in the West, good for second in the division. IUP's two losses were against Slippery Rock and Edinboro in consecutive games in October.

It lost nine starters on offense, though Cignetti noted it has nine players on this year's offense who started at some point last season, about half of whom are on the offensive line. The quarterback competition among Illinois transfer Chase Haslett (son of NFL coach Jim Haslett), Logan Weaver and McKeesport graduate Eddie Stockett is nearing an end.

The Crimson Hawks again will have an infusion of Division I-A talent joining the program. Tight end Brock DeCicco, a Thomas Jefferson graduate and fifth-year transfer from Wisconsin, has drawn rave reviews, as has defensive lineman Bryce Gilbert, who also came over from the Badgers.

Gilbert will join a defense that returns six of its starters from a unit that gave up a PSAC-best 15.4 points per game in conference games last season.

"I feel like inside, this is probably the best we've ever been since I've been here," Cignetti said of the defense.

Around the PSAC

IUP's primary competitor in the division, at least based on the preseason poll, is California, which got the other three first-place votes. The Vulcans, who went 7-4 in 2013, also suffered their share of roster turnover, losing their leading passer, receiver and four leading tacklers from last season. The team's top rusher -- Jeff Knox Jr. -- returns while linebacker Branko Busick (45 tackles) and defensive back Aaron Terry (four interceptions) should help anchor the defense.

The defending West champion, Slippery Rock, was picked third after advancing to the NCAA Division II playoffs in 2013. The Rock will be tasked with replacing quarterback Nigel Barksdale and receiver John Schademan, among others, from an offense that averaged 43.9 points per game.

Following Slippery Rock in the poll, in order, were Mercyhurst, Gannon, Edinboro, Clarion and Seton Hill.

Presidents' Athletic

After finishing second in the conference last season, Washington & Jefferson found itself in the same position to begin the season, picked to finish second in the preseason poll behind defending champion Thomas More. Linebacker Jared Pratt, a Bethel Park graduate who had a team-high 98 tackles in 2013, is back for his senior year. The season likely will be a historic one for the Presidents, as they are three wins away from becoming the third Division III program to have 700 wins.

Waynesburg was tabbed third in the poll, receiving one first-place vote. The Yellow Jackets return quarterback Carter Hill, who led the PAC in passing yards (3,102) and touchdowns (28) last season.

Rounding out the local teams in the poll were Geneva (sixth), conference newcomer Carnegie Mellon (seventh), Grove City (eighth), Westminster (10th) and Saint Vincent (11th).

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.

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