California, IUP co-favorites in balanced PSAC West
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Take one look at the coaches voting in the preseason poll for the PSAC Western Division and it's easy to see there's no clear-cut favorite.
Last year's co-champions California and Slippery Rock each received two first-place votes, while IUP garnered three votes. Mercyhurst also received one first-place vote.
When the final voting was tallied, California and IUP were tabbed as co-favorites in the Western Division, while Slippery Rock was a close third. Mercyhurst was fifth in the voting, behind Edinboro.
"It's certainly better than being picked on the bottom," joked IUP coach Curt Cignetti, who led the Crimson Hawks to a 7-3 record in his debut last season.
"[The preseason poll] is for the media and the fans. It's nice to know that we're one of the favorites, but what we do on the field will determine where we stand in the conference."
IUP has seven starters returning on each side of the ball from a squad that finished third in the PSAC West with a 5-3 record.
Among the returning starters on offense are three players who were voted to the first team All-PSAC West: senior tailback Harvey Tuck, junior tackle Byron Dovales and sophomore place-kicker Brett Ullman.
Tuck is a two-time all-conference selection who ranks No. 4 all time at IUP with 2,681 career rushing yards. He has a legitimate shot of moving to the No. 2 spot, but will be hard pressed to break the school record of 4,805 yards, set by Michael Mann in 1993.
Ullam connected on 10 of 11 field goals and 33 of 34 extra points as a freshman.
California enters a new era as Mike Kellar takes over for retired coach John Luckhardt, who built the Vulcans into a national powerhouse in his 10 years at the helm.
This marks the seventh consecutive season that the Vulcans have been picked as at least a co-favorite in the PSAC West.
IUP is a favorite for the first time since 2003.
"I don't think the preseason poll means a thing," said Kellar, who served as Luckhardt's offensive coordinator.
"If you look at the voting from past years, it's obvious that the teams who have been successful in the past are the teams picked to win. No one really knows what went on with each team during the offseason, so it's hard to know about any team until you see them on the field.
"It's hard enough to know what's going on with your own team."
California has 10 starters returning, including six on offense. The Vulcans offense features three first-team All-PSAC West: senior quarterback Peter Lalich, senior tailback Lamont Smith (a Central Catholic graduate) and senior tight end Blake Williamson (Chartiers-Houston).
Lalich set a school record and posted the fourth highest total in PSAC history with 3,725 yards passing. He also threw 31 touchdown passes and completed 63 percent of his passes.
Smith has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing totals.
Williamson has 63 receptions as a three-year starter.
"There are at least five teams that have a legitimate shot at winning the PSAC West," Kellar said. "That's how much depth we have in this conference. It will be a battle every game."
Slippery Rock has 12 starters back from last year's squad, including center Austin Fedell, a first-team All-PSAC West and a three-time PSAC scholar athlete.
Also back for the Rock is senior tailback Akeem Satterfield, who has 2,214 career rushing yards.
George Mihalik, the dean of PSAC West coaches, enters his 25th season at Slippery Rock. He was absent from Monday's media day in Slippery Rock because of the death of his mother.
Kellar and Gannon's Brad Rzyczycki are first-year coaches, while Cignetti and Lock Haven's John Allen are entering their second year.
First Published August 7, 2012 12:18 am