SLIIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - The Mercyhurst University football team has been picked to finish fourth in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Western Division as announced at the league's annual Football Media Day held at Slippery Rock University on Monday.
Indiana (Pa.) earned five first-place votes and was predicted to win the West. California (Pa.) earned the other three first-place nods and was picked to finish second. Last year's Western Division champion, Slippery Rock, was picked third.
Gannon, Edinboro, Clarion, and Seton Hill rounded out the bottom half of the preseason poll.
In the Eastern Division poll, West Chester, which advanced to the NCAA Division II semifinals last season, earned seven of the eight first-place votes and was picked to win the East. East Stroudsburg garnered the other first-place nod and was picked second. Bloomsburg, Shippensburg, and Kutztown rounded out the top five while Lock Haven, Millersville, and Cheyney were six through eight respectively.
Last season was another successful season for the Mercyhurst football team as the Lakers finished with a 7-4 overall record and a 4-3 mark in the PSAC West. After finishing 9-2 in 2012, the program put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since head coach Jim Chapman was at the helm in 1991 and 1992. Moreover, the two-year stretch of 16-6 is the best since inaugural coach, Tony DeMeo, led the Lakers to a 16-3 two-year record during the 1984 and 1985 campaigns.
Things started inauspiciously for the Lakers in 2013, losing three of their first four games. But, head coach Marty Schaetzle got things turned around and Mercyhurst eventually won six of its final seven games of the year to clinch consecutive winning seasons. Included in the stretch were back-to-back road victories to close out the year at California (Pa.) and East Stroudsburg.
Schaetzle (62-70, 13th season), already the program's all-time winningest and longest-tenured coach, guided the Lakers to an average of 32.8 points per game last season, just shy of the program record of 33.5 set in 2012. The offense also finished second in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) in rushing average (237.8), trailing only Bloomsburg in that department. Against Gannon, Mercyhurst broke a 27-year-old school record by racking up 628 yards of total offense, including 407 on the ground, in a 51-21 win over the Golden Knights. The 407 rushing yards were the third-highest total in school history, but the largest figure since becoming a Division II program.
Also of note last season, running back Brandon Brown-Dukes became the first player in school history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. He also became the first player to have more than one 1,000-yard season in a career and to have more than one 200-yard game to his credit. He rushed for a personal-best 221 yards in the win over Gannon. Free safety Colin Kimball set school records for interception return yards in a game (86 vs Millersville), interception return yards in a season (151), and interceptions returned for touchdowns in a season (2). Finally, placekicker Steven Wakefield, who graduated in May, left as the school's all-time leader in points scored (278), field goals made (38), field goal percentage (73.1%), extra points made (164), and extra point percentage (93.7%). He was 16-of-17 in field goals in 2013, helping Mercyhurst to the second-best red zone percentage in the country (43-of-45, 96%).
The Lakers have not strung together back-to-back-to-back winning seasons since the 1980s when they ran off seven straight from 1983 through 1989. However, the schedule facing the Lakers in 2014 appears daunting. The first four teams on Mercyhurst's schedule (Bentley, West Chester, Bloomsburg, and Indiana (Pa.)) posted a combined record of 38-11 in 2013, which includes Bentley's 6-5 mark a year ago. Both West Chester and Bloomsburg were NCAA Tournament participants, with West Chester advancing to the NCAA semifinals before bowing to Lenoir-Rhyne.
Mercyhurst has to travel to both Bentley and West Chester to open the season before its first home game of the year against Bloomsburg on September 20. Mercyhurst has not played West Chester since 2009 and has not played against Bloomsburg since the Lakers' historic first-ever NCAA playoff win in 2010. The Lakers travel to Indiana (Pa.) the following week, prior to their Homecoming game against Clarion on October 4. Mercyhurst will be looking to avenge a disappointing 20-13 loss to the Golden Eagles a year ago.
The next three weeks will be historic for the Lakers, on some level. Mercyhurst will travel down State Street to square off against in-town rival Gannon on October 11 to start the stretch. The Lakers will then meet Slippery Rock at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan on October 18 in a contest that has been dubbed the "Big House Battle." The teams will be hoping to break the largest attendance record in Division II history at one of the largest stadiums in the country. Upon returning from Michigan Stadium, the Lakers will host Edinboro University on Thursday night, October 23, at Erie Veterans Memorial Stadium. The game will serve as Mercyhurst's second installment of the "All In Vs. ALS" contest.
The final three weeks feature a trip to Seton Hill on November 1 before two home games to close out the season against California (Pa.) and Shippensburg. The PSAC has determined that all conference crossover games, except for the final week of the season, will count in the divisional standings. So, nine of the team's 11 games (excluding non-conference Bentley to open the season and Shippensburg to close season) will be counted in Mercyhurst's PSAC West record.
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