LATROBE – When you possess the most effective weapon, you get the most respect.
That’s why Thomas More is the preseason pick to win the Presidents’ Athletic Conference football championship. The Saints were voted first by the coaches, sports information directors and media at the conference’s annual media day Wednesday at Saint Vincent College.
The Saints return running back Dominique Hayden, a 5-11, 210-pound senior who rushed for an NCAA Division III-best 2,017 yards and scored 25 touchdowns last season.
“Hey, Dominique, my brother works for the San Diego Chargers, and he is ready to offer you a contract. … today,” joked W&J head coach Mike Sirianni during the media day presentations.
Washington & Jefferson, which tied Thomas More for the conference title with 7-1 records last season, received the automatic bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs, thanks to its regular-season victory over the Saints in Week 6.
Waynesburg, which finished third in the conference with a 5-3 mark, was picked third.
Thomas More, which has five of its first six games on the road, will use Hayden’s running ability to set up the other plays in the offensive system.
“He’s a great player,” said Saints head coach Jim Hilvert.
The season marks the welcoming back of two previous members: Case Western Reserve and Carnegie Mellon. The two previously were probationary participants. That brings the number of teams in the conference to 11. The schedule was set up this season so that some conference members will play against each other but not have it count as a conference game.
The conference was formed in 1955 with Wayne State in Detroit, John Carroll University, Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve in Cleveland.
Thomas More received 29 of a possible 34 first-place votes. W&J got two and Waynesburg, Bethany and Case Western Reserve, which was fourth, each got one.
W&J is three victories shy of 700 for the program. Sirianni has a 101-24 record in 11 seasons. It is a young but talented team.
“We don’t have many seniors,” said Sirianni. “If one more person tells me how good we’re going to be in 2015 … we want to be good now. The kids are up to the challenge, and they want another ring.”
Sophomore Pete Coughlin is ready to step in at quarterback for Matt Bliss and junior Ryan Ruffing will try to replace Dion Wiegand at tailback. With four returning starters on the offensive line, the rest should be easy.
Waynesburg has nearly its entire offense back but lost most of its defensive starters, including Brandon Fedorka, the PAC Defensive Player of the Year, and safety Bryan Gary, who led the team with 90 tackles.
On offense, Carter Hill is back as starting quarterback after a season in which he passed for 3,102 yards and threw 28 touchdowns.
“I think we can be pretty solid,” said Hill. “Everyone is talking about how many offensive guys we have back. That puts a little pressure on us. A title is always in the back of our mind. We need to have blinders on and just move on and be ready each week.”
The following is a brief look at the other teams in the conference:
(4-4, 4-6, head coach Bill Garvey)
The Bison lost their record-setting quarterback Matt Grimard (3,100 yards, 23 TDs) but return wide receiver Eric Blinn (95 rec., 1,300 yards, 8 TDs). The Bison open against national power Mount Union.
(0-0, 4-6, Rich Lackner)
The Tartans enter the season after graduating 28 seniors, including starting quarterback Rob Kalkstein (1,607 yards, 13 TDs). CMU is making its second run in the PAC and has won seven titles.
Case Western Reserve
(0-0, 5-4, Greg Debeljak)
The Spartans will have nine returning starters on defense but are thin at running back. Wide receiver Sean Lapcevic (Chartiers Valley) caught 32 passes for 320 yards and two TDs.
(4-4, 5-5, Geno DeMarco)
The Golden Tornadoes were hit by the injury bug last season, losing 17 players for the season to various ailments. That derailed a 3-0 start. RB Josh Gusier had 1,316 total yards, split nearly even through rushing and receiving.
(3-5, 5-5, Chris Smith)
The Wolverines ended the season on a two-game winning streak but QB Brian Pell and the starting wide receivers were lost to graduation.
(0-8, 0-10, Ron Dolciato)
The Bearcats have 18 returning starters. But they did not win a game last season and went six games without scoring in double figures. Dolciato replaced Bob Colbert as head coach.
(3-5, 3-7, Kurt Reiser)
The Tomcats had back-to-back overtime games to end the season, beating Westminster 45-37 in four OTs and losing to Grove City, 50-44, in one. Ten starters back put the defense ahead of the offense in camp.
(3-5, 4-6, Scott Benzel)
Benzel takes over for Jeff Hand, who resigned after last season. Benzel has a tough job as the Titans lost 13 starters from last year’s team, including the entire backfield.
PAC Preseason Poll
1. Thomas More (29) 367
2. W&J (2) 330
3. Waynesburg (1) 293
4. Case Western Reserve (1) 246
5. Bethany (1) 202
6. Geneva 200
7. Carnegie Mellon 157
8. Grove City 154
9. Thiel 149
10. Westminster 96
11. Saint Vincent 46