At Centre College, they’re right back where they were this time last year.
The Colonels start a new season with the same lofty expectations they had last year, and with every reason to believe they can achieve their goals even though things didn’t work out the way they planned in 2012.
Centre followed one of the most successful seasons in school history in 2011 with a 6-4 campaign that ended with losses in its last two games. It was the sixth consecutive winning season for the Colonels, but it wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy players who had been part of an historic run to the NCAA Division III playoffs the previous year.
“It’s a winning season, but we set much higher expectations than that. We want to go for the straight 10-and-0, and move on past that to the playoffs,” defensive end Paul Megilligan, a Boyle County High School graduate, said Wednesday at Centre’s media day.
In other words, the Colonels have reset their goals to the same place they were a year ago, when they were ranked in the top 20 in a handful of preseason polls.
“That’s exactly where they are,” Megilligan said.
That’s fine with coach Andy Frye, who said he hopes expectations will always be high.
“I think that’s a good thing for Centre,” Frye said. “To have a winning record and it still wasn’t good enough, I think that’s a good thing. We look to see, one, can we win our conference, two, we want to get in the playoff picture, and then we’ve got a chance to compete for a national championship.”
There will be no preseason ranking this year, but Centre again has the makings of a solid team, with nine starters returning on defense and six on offense.
“We knew we had the talent (last year), and we still do now,” linebacker Erich Vogelsang said. “We have tons of returners on both sides of the ball, and we’re just ready to get started and get going.”
Quarterback Heath Haden said the Colonels walked away from last season with a feeling that was a combination of disappointment and aggravation.
“It’s a little of both,” he said. “There are some of those games we felt we should’ve won. We know were not a 6-4 football team, and whenever you have a season like that, you’re just ready to get back on the field.”
That happened last weekend, as Centre opened practice Sunday in preparation for its season opener Sept. 7 against Bethany (W.Va.).
The Colonels gave up 76 points in the last two games of last season, but defense figures to be a strength this year, with experience at virtually every position.
“I think we’ll be pretty strong. We’ve got some good seniors in there that’s going to be leading us. And a lot of us have experience, maybe not all the starters, but we’ve been in there, and it’s not going to be a shock when we get out there and go,” Megilligan said.
Vogelsang said experience gives Centre’s defenders a familiarity that will serve them well.
“The big key about our defense is that we always trust each other,” he said.
Vogelsang, a senior, is one of four Centre players who made the all-Southern Athletic Association first team last year, and the only one who returns. He had a team-high 71 tackles and had two interceptions last season.
The entire secondary — safeties Ben Leahy and Sam Spees and cornerbacks Selwyn Mallah and Casey Vatter — return. There is also experience up front, where Megilligan and Tami Aderoba are back at tackle and Rue Hockensmith and part-time starter Alex Hay are back at end.
“I feel pretty confident in our defense, that were going line up right,” Frye said. “We’ve got good speed in the secondary, and our defensive line is really our stalwart, I think.”
On offense, Centre will again by led by quarterback Heath Haden, a junior who threw for 1,973 yards and 15 touchdowns last year in his first season as a starter.
Senior Rob Melillo, who had 32 receptions for 399 yards in 2012, leads a group of experienced receivers that also includes Greyson Janeway, Austin Jones and Bryan Carroll.
Harry Meisner, another senior, is the top returning running back with 320 yards and five touchdowns last season, and junior Matt Farrell is expected to move into a larger role in the backfield.
The Colonels’ averages of 25.4 points and 379 yards placed them squarely in the middle of the SAA last season, but they could move up the charts thanks to the up-tempo style they are expected to employ this fall.
“With the experience we have, and with our offense, we should be able to come out firing,” Meisner said.
Frye said he liked what he saw in the spring.
“After spring ball, even though we weren’t in pads, with the tempo of offense that we want to run, I felt like we were in a good position right now, especially in our skill positions on offense,” he said.
There are unknowns on the offensive line, where there will likely be five new starters. Tackle Ryan McDonald, guard Steven Fortner and center Teddy Reeve are among the experienced players who will move into the lineup.
“I think we’ve got some good backups that got a lot of playing time last year, but now they’re the starters. Now they’re positioned to create, I hope, a legacy for the offensive line for the next couple years,” Frye said.
There is also a pair of big kicking shoes to fill, as the Colonels can no longer rely on All-America kicker-punter Jordan Gay, who is trying to win a spot on the Carolina Panthers’ roster this summer. Frye said the competition for both spots is wide open and is between returnees Preston Cahill and Andrew O’Bannon and freshman Alex Ward.
“The big question is obviously special teams. To lose an All-American punter and kicker, now we’re going to have to coach them up,” Frye said.
Leadership is not in question, with 18 seniors ready to take control of the team. They started off the preseason with a show of unity, as all of them got matching Mohawk haircuts.
“Some of the guys couldn’t exactly grow facial hair, so we just all wanted to do something together to show how much we are together,” Vogelsang said.
Their work began in earnest this week, but they have been working since last winter to make sure this season turns out better than last year.
“I don’t want to go out like that at all,” Meisner said.
In fact, several players said that has driven them during their offseason workouts.
“It really just left a bad taste in my mouth,” Leahy said. “That motivated me more than anything in the offseason. This is what I’ve been training for all year.”
Sept. 7 BETHANY (W.Va.) 1:30
Sept. 14 at Rose-Hulman 7:00
Sept. 21 WASHINGTON & LEE 2:30
Sept. 28 at Washington (Mo.) 2:00
Oct. 12 at Berry 1:00
Oct. 19 SEWANEE 1:30
Oct. 26 at Rhodes 3:00
Nov. 2 HENDRIX 2:30
Nov. 9 at Millsaps 2:00
Nov. 16 BIRMINGHAM-SOUTHERN 1:30