Hartwick Football Picked 3rd, Utica 6th In Empire 8 Poll
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- St. John Fisher College, which shared last year's Empire 8 conference title with Hartwick College and advanced to the regional finals of the 2007 NCAA Division III Football Championship, has been picked to share this year's title with Ithaca College in the 2008 Empire 8 Football Preseason Coaches' Poll. The conference champion earns an automatic berth to the NCAA Division III Championship.
St. John Fisher, which received four first-place votes in the conference poll, is ranked sixth in the USA Today Sports Weekly Division III rankings. The Cardinals, who return more than 40 letterwinners from last year's 11-2 squad, are ranked 10th in the D3football.com preseason poll and 16th in Lindy's College Football preseason poll. They play four teams that earned NCAA Division III Championship bids last season and will open the year against Mount Union, which has knocked them out of the national championship tournament each of the past two seasons.
Senior Tim Marion of the Cardinals was named a preseason All-American at wide receiver and punt returner by Consensus Draft Services. Senior lineman Dan Pollock and senior linebacker Josh Gottlieb, first-team all-conference selections, lead the record-breaking defense that allowed just 11.8 points per game.
Ithaca is ranked 17th in the Lindy's poll, 18th in the D3football.com poll and 21st in the USA Today rankings. The Bombers split their first four games last year before running off six consecutive wins and earning a bid to the NCAA tournament.
Senior tight end Brian Weverbergh, a first-team all-conference selection for Ithaca last season, has earned several preseason honors. He was named one of five "Players to Watch" by USA Today after setting school records for a tight end in 2007 with 44 catches and 580 receiving yards. He was also named a preseason All-American by D3football.com, Lindy's, and Consensus Draft Services.
Senior guard Chris Gray, a first-team Empire 8 performer last year, was named a preseason All-American by Lindy's and Consensus Draft Services. Gray anchored the offensive line that blocked for runners who gained 1,802 yards during the regular season last year. Senior Jason Chier led the nation in punt returns in 2007, averaging 20.2 yards per return. He was named to the Consensus Draft Services Preseason All-American Team.
Hartwick, chosen to finish third by the coaches, seeks to repeat as Empire 8 champions and return the high-powered combination of quarterback Jason Boltus and wide receiver Jack Phelan, who have each received preseason All-American recognition. Boltus, the Empire 8 Offensive Player of the Year, earned the Melberger Award given to the nation's top football player in Division III. He led the nation in total offense (399.7 yards per game) and passing yards per game (362.4 ypg).
Phelan, a first-team all-conference choice, led the nation in receiving yards per game (148.0 ypg) and was seventh in Division III in scoring (23 touchdowns, 12.5 points per game). Boltus broke Empire 8 single-season records for passing yards and total offense and the Hawks set single-season team records for passing yards, total offense, and first downs.
Alfred University, which posted an 8-3 record last year and won its second consecutive ECAC Northwest Bowl Championship over Rochester, is the coaches' choice to finish fourth this season. The Saxons feature first-team all-conference running back Vinson Hendrix. The junior tailback, named a first-team preseason All-American by D3football.com, ranked 13th in Division III rushing yards and 15th in rushing yards per game, setting an Alfred single-season record by rushing for 1,406 yards in 2007.
Springfield, which shared the Empire 8 title in 2006, was picked fifth in the preseason poll. Senior linebacker Tom Caporale earned first-team all-conference honors last season and led the Empire 8 with 97 tackles during the regular season, including 49 solo stops.
Blaise Faggiano, who spent the past nine seasons as defensive coordinator at St. John Fisher, takes over the head coaching duties at Utica College. Senior defensive end Vinson Jones, a captain on this year's team, paced the Pioneers with 11 tackles for loss last season, including six sacks. Utica ended last season by taking conference co-champion Hartwick to four overtimes in the highest scoring game in Division III history, a 72-70 Hawks' win.
Norwich University, competing in the Empire 8 for the final time this season, is led by senior running back Darnell Jackson, who has led the team in rushing each of the past three years and rushed for a career-high 1,002 yards in 2007. Outside linebacker Jason Springer was named Empire 8 Rookie of the Year last season.
In six seasons, the Empire 8 has recorded 17 postseason victories with six of the seven teams playing in at least one postseason game during that time. Last year, Empire 8 teams posted a 21-8 regular season record against non-conference Division III opponents for a .724 winning percentage.
2008 Empire 8 Football Preseason Coaches Poll
T-1. St. John Fisher College (4 first-place votes), 33 points
T-1. Ithaca College (3), 33
3. Hartwick College, 25
4. Alfred University, 21
5. Springfield College, 18
6. Utica College, 11
7. Norwich University, 6