NEC Preview: Parity reigns again, Bryant leads tight pack

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (STATS) – Duquesne football coach Jerry Schmidt was still contemplating the team identity he wanted the Dukes to take on as they headed toward preseason camp earlier this month.

His All-America wide receiver Chris King was willing to suggest an idea.

"It’s about being connected with your teammates, getting into rhythm with them and maintaining your health throughout the season," King said, "which breeds success."

Duquesne has been one of the Northeast Conference’s more consistent programs, but injuries caught up to the Dukes last season in a league full of parity. And in another great race, the NEC title was shared by two teams (Sacred Heart and Wagner) for a fifth straight season.

This year, the top teams appear even tighter. So intangibles, like the ones King suggested, will go a long way as the NEC celebrates its 20th season of football.

"It’s such a great league as far as the parity within the conference," Wagner coach Jason Houghtaling said. "Any given team can win any given week. Obviously, it creates a lot of fun and a lot of competitive games. As far as expectations go, I think it’s the same for everyone right now. Everyone is ready to go and you expect a lot from your kids."

"We can be really good this year," said coach Marty Fine of preseason favorite Bryant, "and still not have a better record. And that’s a real credit to the people in the league."

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PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH=

1. Bryant

2. Duquesne

3. Sacred Heart

4. Wagner

5. Saint Francis

6. Central Connecticut State

7. Robert Morris

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TEAM CAPSULES=

1. BRYANT BULLDOGS

LOCATION: Smithfield, Rhode Island

STADIUM: Bulldog Stadium

COACH: Marty Fine (70-49 in 11 seasons at Bryant; 85-54 overall)

LAST SEASON: 8-3 overall, 4-2 NEC (3rd)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (9 offense/5 defense)

KEY LOSSES: FB Tyler McIntyre, DE Jeff Covitz, DE Maduka Nwanekezi, S Sebastian Amedee, S Bobby Rutland, LB/P Sam Sammons

OFFENSIVE STAR: Ricardo McCray, RB/KR, Sr., 5-9, 200 (147 carries, 814 yards, 10 TDs; 30 receptions, 366 yards, 4 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Marquise Watson, LB, Jr., 6-0, 250 (80 TT, 10 TFL, 2 SK, 2 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Dalton Easton, QB, Jr., 6-0, 192; Tucker Beirne, QB, Fr., 6-2, 225; Paul Canevari, RB, Sr., 5-11, 210; Chad Ward, WR/PR, Sr., 6-3, 185; Jose Depadua, WR, Sr., 5-10, 175; Keenan Thompson, WR, Jr., 5-11, 194; John Lavin, TE, Sr., 6-5, 250; Ryan Barrett, TE, Sr., 6-5, 240; Abe M’Bodj, OL, Sr., 6-3, 305; Tyler Cardoze, OL, Jr., 6-4, 325; George Smith, OL, Jr., 6-2, 285; Keiran Elmore, OL, Jr., 6-0, 290; Dillon Guthro, DE, So., 6-3, 215; Kevin Lazo, DL, R-Fr., 6-1, 285; Abri Tate, DL, Sr., 6-4, 230; Patrick Kenney, LB., Jr, 6-1, 230; Aaron Dixon, LB, Sr., 6-2, 205; Justin Robinson-Howe, LB, Sr., 6-0, 215; Chuckie Wingate, DB, Jr., 5-9, 160; Chuckie Keenan, S, Jr., 6-1, 185; Brandon Owens, S, Jr., 5-11, 190; Brandon Dagnesses, DB, Sr., 5-10, 185; D.J. Davis, DB, Fr., 6-0, 175; La Tony Davis, DB, Fr., 5-9, 160

OUTLOOK: Fine talked with cautious optimism in the preseason, hoping his team has enough depth to make it through the long season. Although his Bulldogs have yet to win an NEC title, they flirted with it last season, starting 8-1 overall and 4-0 in conference play before they lost their final two games by a combined 10 points. Picked first in this year’s NEC preseason poll, their multiple offense may be the best in the conference. Easton is back to guide the offense, McCray and Canevari are a terrific 1-2 punch in the backfield (1,746 combined rushing yards), and Ward is an All-NEC wide receiver. Their defense allowed a mere 16.1 points and 299.9 yards per game, although only five starters return to the unit, with their difference maker, Covitz, among the departed. The strength will be at linebacker with leading tacklers Watson and Kenney. It hurts to play only four home games in such a promising season, but, thankfully for the Bulldogs, Duquesne and Sacred Heart are two of the teams coming to Bulldog Stadium.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – vs. American International

Sept. 19 – at Brown

Sept. 26 – at Coastal Carolina

Oct. 3 – at Monmouth

Oct. 10 – at Central Connecticut State*

Oct. 17 – vs. Duquesne*

Oct. 24 – vs. Saint Francis (Pa.)*

Oct. 31 – at Holy Cross

Nov. 7 – at Wagner*

Nov. 14 – vs. Sacred Heart*

Nov. 21 – at Robert Morris*

* – NEC game

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2. DUQUESNE DUKES

LOCATION: Pittsburgh

STADIUM: Arthur J. Rooney Athletic Field

COACH: Jerry Schmitt (60-47 in 10 seasons at Duquesne; 88-68 overall)

LAST SEASON: 6-6 overall, 2-4 NEC (5th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

BIG LOSSES: RB Ryan Ho, WR/RS Devin Rahmig, LB Austin Whalen, FS Rich Piekarski, CB Devin Williams

OFFENSIVE STAR: Chris King, WR/KR, Sr., 6-1, 196 (68 receptions, 1,127 yards, 14 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Zach Zidian, NT, Sr., 6-1, 325 (61 TT, 7 TFL, 1 SK, 2 PBU, 1 BLK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Dillon Buechel, QB, Jr., 6-3, 176; Rafiq Douglas, RB, So., 6-0, 204; Dave Thomas, WR, Sr., 5-8, 160; Wayne Capers, WR, Sr., 6-1, 205; Kevin Enright, TE, Jr., 6-3, 239; Dave Buchholz, LT, Sr., 6-4, 295; Mike Mondzelewski, C, So., 6-3, 293; Ben Huss, RG, So., 6-2, 301; Larson Graham, RT, Jr., 6-5, 293; Dane O’Driscoll, DE, Sr., 6-3, 260; Jake Rudziukinas, DE, Jr., 6-1, 279; Christian Kuntz, OLB/LS, Sr., 6-2, 210; Armstead Williams, OLB, Sr., 6-2, 225; Sam Martello, ILB, Sr., 6-0, 214; Aaron Reed, ILB, Jr., 5-11, 218; Nathan Stone, OLB, So., 5-11, 234; Malik Shegog, CB, So., 5-10, 158; Austin Crimmons, PK/P, Jr., 5-11, 194

OUTLOOK: The Dukes hope to turn last year’s "what could have been" storyline into an NEC championship season and their first-ever FCS playoff appearance. Linebackers Kuntz and Reed led the team in tackles in 2013, but were lost to season-ending injuries last preseason. Buechel, perhaps the best quarterback in the conference, also missed parts of six games because of injury. The Dukes return with superb talent this year and are experienced on both the offensive and defensive lines – often the cornerstone to a big season. In the absence of Kuntz (19.5 TFL, nine sacks in 2013) and Reed last year, Zidian stepped up his play at nose guard and LB Stone (100 tackles) became the NEC’s defensive rookie of the year. A big concern is that Shegog is the only returning starter in the secondary. On offense, the Dukes must develop a run game to facilitate the best passing game in the NEC. Buechel has a superb receiving tandem with the All-American King and Thomas. It helps to return PK Crimmons, who is mostly a short-range specialist but has booted 28 field goals over his first two seasons. The Dukes have more overall wins (34) and as many conference victories (21) as any other NEC program in the last five seasons. This year, they crave getting to the national playoffs.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – vs. Kentucky Christian

Sept. 12 – at Bucknell

Sept. 19 – at Dayton

Sept. 26 – at Albany

Oct. 3 – vs. Central Connecticut State*

Oct. 10 – vs. Alderson-Broaddus

Oct. 17 – at Bryant*

Oct. 24 – at Robert Morris*

Oct. 31 – vs. Wagner*

Nov. 7 – at Sacred Heart*

Nov. 21 – vs. Saint Francis (Pa.)*

* – NEC game

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3. SACRED HEART PIONEERS

LOCATION: Fairfield, Connecticut

STADIUM: Campus Field

COACH: Mark Nofri (21-15 in three seasons at Sacred Heart)

LAST SEASON: 9-3 overall, 5-1 NEC (Tie/1st)

STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (5 offense/6 defense)

KEY LOSSES: RB Keshaudas Spence, RB Sean Bell, OL Jaime Martinez, DT Troy Moore, S Gordon Hill, DB J.D. Roussel, PK Chris Rogers

OFFENSIVE STAR: Tyler Dube, WR/PR, Gr., 6-0, 170 (79 receptions, 970 yards, 16 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: James Rentz, OLB, Jr., 6-1, 230 (61 TT, 19 TFL, 12.5 SK, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 3 QBH, 2 FF, 2 BLK)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: RJ Noel, QB, Jr., 6-1, 190; Ose Imeokparia, RB, Jr., 5-11, 190; Jaylin Croom, RB, Jr., 5-10, 210; Jackson King, WR, Sr., 5-10, 195; Cole Duncan, TE, Jr., 6-2, 235; Nick Bartoli, RG, Sr., 6-0, 285; Frank McConnell, C, Gr., 6-1, 285; Sean Merrill, LG, Jr., 6-4, 300; Ryan Cottrell, DT, Jr., 6-3, 265; Robert Johnson, NG, Gr., 6-0, 280; Connor Caveney, Gr., 6-3, 305; Connor Candito, OLB, Gr., 6-1, 220; Kevin Barry, ILB, Jr., 6-0, 220; Kellen Sperduto, ILB, Sr., 6-0, 225; Sam McCain, OLB/S, Sr., 5-11, 220; Tim Johnson, CB, Jr., 5-10, 180; Alec Finelli, S, So., 6-0, 200; Alec Finney, PK, Jr., 6-0, 190

OUTLOOK: After representing the NEC in the FCS playoffs for two straight years, Sacred Heart is replacing 26 seniors, and the Pioneers have the rare underdog’s role for a two-time defending conference champion. Their losses didn’t include WR Dube, who has returned for a fifth season after catching 79 passes and scoring 17 touchdowns a year ago. He will be the go-to player on offense with the hope that a running game develops after standouts Spence and Bell both departed. But Nofri, the NEC coach of the year in 2013 and ’14, and his Pioneers have their leader back in Noel, already a two-time All-NEC first-team quarterback. Linebackers Rentz (NEC-best 12.5 sacks) and Sperduto will dominate in the 3-4 defensive scheme, but the stingy Pioneers are vulnerable on the back end. After committing 107 penalties for 1,028 yards, the Pioneers need to play with more discipline. But they know how to win closes games, and that will go a long way in the NEC schedule.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – vs. Saint Anselm

Sept. 12 – at Valparaiso

Sept. 19 – at Marist

Sept. 26 – at Dartmouth

Oct. 10 – at Robert Morris*

Oct. 17 – vs. Cornell

Oct. 24 – vs. Central Connecticut State*

Oct. 31 – at Saint Francis (Pa.)*

Nov. 7 – vs. Duquesne*

Nov. 14 – at Bryant*

Nov. 21 – vs. Wagner*

* – NEC game

—=

4. WAGNER SEAHAWKS

LOCATION: Staten Island, New York

STADIUM: Wagner College Stadium

COACH: Jason Houghtaling (first season at Wagner)

LAST SEASON: 7-4 overall, 5-1 NEC (Tie/1st)

STARTERS RETURNING: 12 (7 offense/5 defense)

KEY LOSSES: TE Bryant Watts, LB Max Wassel, LB Anthony Emmanuele, SS Daniel Mack, CB Jarrett Dieudonne, P A.J. Firestone, LS Phil Faccone

OFFENSIVE STAR: Matt Diaz, LT, Jr., 6-6, 290

DEFENSIVE STAR: Al Page, DT, R-Sr., 6-2, 295 (45 TT, 18 TFL, 3 SK, 6 QBH)

KEY PLAYERS: Chris Andrews, QB, Sr., 6-1, 225; Otis Wright, RB/KR, Sr., 5-10, 180; Matthias McKinnon, RB, Jr., 6-0, 200; Anthony Carrington, WR, R-Sr., 6-2, 205; Lloyd Smith, WR, Jr., 6-3, 190; Isaiah Gills, WR, Jr., 6-4, 220; Ryan Owens, Sr., TE, 6-4, 235; Kevin Messier, RG, R-Sr., 6-5, 295; Brus Palaj, LG, Sr., 6-6, 300; John Aubel, DE, R-Sr., 6-3, 250; Fidel Okoye, DT, Sr., 6-2, 295; Daevonte Barnett, DT, R-Sr., 6-4, 280; Najee Harris, OLB, Jr., 6-1, 225; Greg Hilliard, OLB, R-Sr., 6-3, 245; Stephon Font-Toomer, ILB, Sr., 6-1, 240; Deangelo Jamses, CB, R-Sr., 5-10, 170; Bryan Maley, PK, R-Sr., 5-10, 175

OUTLOOK: This is first time in 35 years that Walt Hameline (223-139-2 record) will not be leading the Seahawks into action. Houghtaling, who was their associate head coach and offensive coordinator, has taken over for the Wagner legend. The Seahawks, who shared last year’s NEC title with Sacred Heart, won’t have major changes scheme-wise, instead looking to continue their steady, ball-control style. But will they have enough offense in a conference that continues to improve there? QB Andrews looks to ride the momentum of his strong second half last season, and his work will be made easier by the return of a healthier Carrington (knee injury) at wideout. If he solidifies the position, Wright could be one of the conference’s better running backs, but the Seahawks might use more of a committee. The defense racks up tackles for loss and DTs Page and Okoye will stuff the middle to make it all happen. It will be hard to replace Dieudonne’s seven interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns. The Seahawks will become the first NEC team to play two FBS opponents (Rice and BYU) in the same season, and they hope the tough assignments will pay off in the conference schedule.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – at Rice

Sept. 19 – vs. Monmouth

Sept. 26 – vs. Lafayette

Oct. 3 – vs. Robert Morris*

Oct. 10 – at Columbia

Oct. 17 – at Saint Francis (Pa.)*

Oct. 24 – at BYU

Oct. 31 – at Duquesne*

Nov. 7 – vs. Bryant*

Nov. 14 – vs. Central Connecticut State*

Nov. 21 – at Sacred Heart*

* – NEC game

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5. SAINT FRANCIS (PA.) RED FLASH

LOCATION: Loretto, Pennsylvania

STADIUM: DeGol Field

COACH: Chris Villarrial (18-37 in five seasons at Saint Francis)

LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 3-3 NEC (4th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 11 (5 offense/6 defense)

KEY LOSSES: LT Thurston Kino, RT Colin Gdula, DT Terrace Bourne, LB Bishop Neal

OFFENSIVE STAR: Khairi Dickson, RB, Sr., 6-0, 182 (309 carries, 1,708 yards, 12 TDs; 19 receptions, 133 yards)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Lorenzo Jerome, DB/RS, Jr., 5-11, 185 (79 TT, 2 TFL, 3 INTs, 13 PBU, 1 QBH, 1 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Zach Drayer, QB/P, Jr., 6-3, 215; Marcus Bagley, RB, So., 5-10, 203; Anthony Abeid, WR, Sr., 5-8, 175; Terell Smith, WR, R-Sr., 6-0, 194; Will Martin, WR, R-Sr., 5-8, 167; Jimmy Marks, OL, Jr., 6-2, 275; DaQuan Minter, DB, Sr., 5-11, 170; Semo Sila, LB, Sr., 6-1, 196; Wesley Nagaseu, LB, Jr., 6-0, 240; Solomon Leaeno, LB, Jr., 5-11, 220; Lance Geesey, PK, Jr., 5-10, 180

OUTLOOK: With three straight five-win seasons under Villarrial, Saint Francis has become relevant again in the NEC. SFU handed Sacred Heart its only conference loss a year ago. With RBs Dickson, who led the FCS in rushing yards per game (155.3), and Bagley, the 2014 NEC offensive rookie of the year, the Red Flash figure to live up to their nickname. But Marks is the only returning starter on the offensive line, so there might be a transition period. Drayer, who threw 15 touchdowns last season, also is back to lead an offense that was the NEC’s top-scoring unit. Jerome (16 passes defended) and Minter (five interceptions) will keep the Red Flash strong in the secondary. In Geesey (PK), Drayer (P) and Jerome (RS), Saint Francis swept the special teams spots on the NEC preseason squad. Geesey was 18-for-22 on field goals, with a long of 52 yards.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – vs. Georgetown

Sept. 12 – at Towson

Sept. 19 – at Youngstown State

Sept. 26 – vs. University of Faith

Oct. 3 – at East Tennessee State

Oct. 17 – vs. Wagner*

Oct. 24 – at Bryant*

Oct. 31 – vs. Sacred Heart*

Nov. 7 – at Central Connecticut State*

Nov. 14 – vs. Robert Morris*

Nov. 21 – at Duquesne*

* – NEC game

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6. CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE BLUE DEVILS

LOCATION: New Britain, Connecticut

STADIUM: Arute Field

COACH: Pete Rossomando (3-9 in one season at Central Connecticut State; 45-22 overall)

LAST SEASON: 3-9 overall, 1-5 NEC (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

KEY LOSSES: QB Rick SanGiacomo, RB/RS Rob Hollomon, WR/RS Tyrell Holmes, LB Josh Alaeze, DB Chris Abner, S Josh Cellerin

OFFENSIVE STAR: Tyler Hurd, LT, Sr., 6-4, 290

DEFENSIVE STAR: Asia Bolling, DE, Jr., 6-3, 225 (52 TT, 12 TFL, 7 SK, 2 QBH, 4 FF)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: QB Taz Pauldo, QB, R-Fr., 6-2, 200; Jacob Dolegala, QB, Fr., 6-6, 215; Brenden Lytton, RB, Jr., 5-10, 210; Dan Hebert, WR, Jr., 5-9, 170; Brenden Cullen, TE, Jr., 6-3, 240; Mike Money, OL, Jr., 6-5, 270; Paul Spada, OL, Jr., 6-5, 284; Justin Douglas, NT, So., 6-3, 210; Austin Wezenski, DT, Jr., 6-3, 275; Randall Reecher, DT, So., 6-2, 290; C.J. Morrison, ILB, Sr., 5-8, 200; Shacor Privott, ILB, So., 6-2, 250; Keir Minor, OLB, Jr., 6-3, 215; David Campbell, CB, Jr., 5-10, 185; Jevon Elmore, CB, So., 5-10, 185; Ed Gorth, PK/P, Jr., 5-10, 155; Frankie Palmer, RS, So., 6-0, 165

OUTLOOK: In one of the weirder scenarios of the 2014 FCS season, CCSU defeated more CAA Football teams (Towson and Rhode Island) than NEC opponents (Saint Francis). Maybe that showed how much the NEC is improving. Regardless, the Blue Devils are still in a rebuilding mode as Rossomando will have a young lineup for his second season since arriving from Division II New Haven. The big loss is all-purpose back Hollomon, although Lytton (438 yards and four touchdowns on the ground) appears ready to become the featured back behind an offensive line that features Money and Hurd. Also, SanGiacomo chose not to return for his final season, so the Blue Devils will have a new quarterback in either a redshirt freshman (Pauldo) or a true freshman (Dolegala). The defense is led by DE Bolling, who uses his quickness to make plays, and CB Elmore (10 passes defended), who arrived in a big way as a freshman. CCSU has to reverse a minus-13 turnover margin to be remotely competitive this season.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 3 – vs. Lehigh

Sept. 12 – at Stony Brook

Sept. 19 – vs. Bowie State

Sept. 26 – at New Hampshire

Oct. 3 – at Duquesne*

Oct. 10 – vs. Bryant*

Oct. 17 – vs. Dartmouth

Oct. 24 – at Sacred Heart*

Oct. 31 – vs. Robert Morris*

Nov. 7 – vs. Saint Francis (Pa.)*

Nov. 14 – at Wagner*

* – NEC game

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7. ROBERT MORRIS COLONIALS

LOCATION: Moon Township, Pennsylvania

STADIUM: Joe Walton Stadium

COACH: John Banaszak (1-10 in one season at Wagner)

LAST SEASON: 1-10 overall, 1-5 NEC (Tie/6th)

STARTERS RETURNING: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)

KEY LOSSES: WR Duane Mitchell, OL Jon Hill, DB/PR Antwan Eddie, P Tony LaMancusa

OFFENSIVE STAR: Rameses Owens, RB, So., 6-2, 210 (128 carries, 562 yards, 2 TDs)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Mike Stojkovic, LB, R-Sr., 6-2, 220 (82 TT, 10 TFL, 1 SK, 4 QBH, 2 FR)

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Derik Abbott, QB, Sr., 5-11, 190; Luke Brumbaugh, QB, R-So., 6-2, 185; Marcus Prather, QB, R-Jr., 6-2, 195; Luke Centofanti, WR, Sr., 5-11, 190; Sean Gavin, WR, Sr., 6-0, 175; Nic Lamica, WR, Jr., 6-4, 225; Kyle Buss, WR, R-Fr., 5-10, 190; Blake Chambliss, LT, Jr., 6-4, 275; Nick Faraci, C, R-Sr., 6-1, 285; Max Robertson, LG, Sr., 6-3, 305; Josh Thiel, RG, Sr., 6-2, 285; Ryan Lewis, DE, Jr., 6-4, 270; Forrest Mason, DE, R-Sr., 6-2, 275; Austin Trgovcich, DE, Sr., 6-3, 260; Zack Zamiska, DT, Jr., 6-5, 290; Jake Tkach, LB, R-Sr., 6-0, 245; Jimmy Masson, LB, Jr., 6-0, 195; Gerald Ferguson, LB, So., 6-3, 205; Drew Allen, DB, So., 6-1, 170; Marcelis Branch, DB, Sr., 5-11, 180 (sat out last season); Ryan Richards Jr., DB, So., 6-2, 190; Andy Smigiera, WS, Jr., 6-1, 200; Sam Woods, SS, Jr., 5-11, 190

OUTLOOK: As the younger players mature, the Colonials hope to get back on track after winning only once in Banaszak’s first season since replacing Joe Walton, who had coached the first 20 seasons in program history. Nine of their 10 losses were by 19 points or more. Robert Morris has the most returning starters in the NEC with 15, but it did not have a player on the conference’s preseason squad when the other six teams had at least three selections each. Owens is the type of player to build around, but the running back was limited to seven games as a freshman last season because of an injury. Abbott (68-for-119, 804 yards, 7 TDs, 7 INTs) is considered the returning starter at quarterback, but Brumbaugh (83-for-166, 672 yards, 2 TDs, 10 INTs) also is in the QB derby. Last season’s top eight tacklers return, led by LBs Tkach (82) and Stojkovic (80). After sitting out last season, CB Branch, the 2012’s NEC defensive player of the year, also rejoins the secondary. An alarming 37 turnovers led to a 9.9-point average, and the Colonials ranked last in the FCS with a 20-minus turnover margin. But Banaszak is a glass half-full type of coach, so once his team experiences success, he thinks it will make the players even hungrier.

SCHEDULE:

Sept. 5 – vs. Dayton

Sept. 12 – at Youngstown State

Sept. 19 – vs. Notre Dame (Ohio)

Sept. 26 – at South Dakota State

Oct. 3 – at Wagner*

Oct. 10 – vs. Sacred Heart*

Oct. 24 – vs. Duquesne*

Oct. 31 – at Central Connecticut State*

Nov. 7 – vs. East Tennessee State

Nov. 14 – at Saint Francis (Pa.)*

Nov. 21 – vs. Bryant*

* – NEC game