Expectations are as high as they have ever been for Johns Hopkins and Salisbury heading into the Division III football season. Meanwhile, the other programs around the state — Stevenson, McDaniel and Frostburg — are putting together the building blocks in hopes of starting their own postseason runs.
Salisbury enters the season ranked No. 7 nationally with one of the most difficult schedules in Division III. Johns Hopkins was picked to win the Centennial Conference for the eighth time in 11 years and is coming off a season where it hosted an NCAA playoff game for the first time.
"We expect our guys not to get caught up in that stuff," Johns Hopkins coach Jim Margraff said. "I thought there were five or six teams that could win the conference on paper. The pride on our program has grown a great deal. The level of expectations have grown also."
The Blue Jays will have to overcome some key losses to graduation, including quarterback Hewitt Tomlin, last season's conference Player of the Year. Junior Robbie Matey will start under center after serving as the primary backup for Hewitt for the past two seasons. Matey won two games as a starter last season when Hewitt was injured, including a 27-17 win over conference foe Muhlenberg.
"He has a great command of the offense," Margraff said. "He is sharp guy. He stepped right into that leadership role."
Also returning on offense are junior Dan Wodicka and senior Scott Cremens, who combined for 146 receptions for 1,950 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Running back Jonathan Rigaud is also back after rushing for 905 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
The defense also lost seven starters, but will reload with the return linebackers Taylor Maciow and Adam Schweyer. The defense rotated several players last season, so Maciow is confident the unit will continue its recent dominance.
"We're meshing really well," said Maciow, who had 88 tackles and added 6.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and five pass breakups last season. "Everybody on our defense saw time last season. They know what it's like to play under pressure. We're ready to go."
Salisbury is primed for another postseason run with a talented roster, including the return of three preseason All-Americans in senior linebacker Matt McMurdo, senior quarterback Dan Griffin and junior cornerback Andre Carter.The Sea Gulls are the preseason favorite to win the Empire 8 Athletic Conference after finishing 7-0 in its first season in the league last season and an 11-2 record overall en route to the NCAA quarterfinals — their deepest run since advancing to the national championship game in 1986.
"We're ranked No. 7 in the preseason poll, but that is a lot of what we did last year," Salisbury coach Sherman Wood said. "It comes down to the way we finish. We do have tradition. How do we continue that tradition?"
Stevenson will begin just its second season in school history and was picked to finish seventh in the 10-team Middle Atlantic Conference. The Mustangs went 2-8 in 2011, but return a pair of preseason All-Americans in linebacker Donnell Brown (Poly) and receiver Jae DeShields.
Frostburg also returns some talent and will look to build on last season's 4-6 record, including 3-4 in the Empire 8. The Bobcats will be led by sophomore tailback JD Hook, who was named the conference Rookie of the Year after finishing with1,107 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns. Senior defensive back Brendon Blanchette, a second-team All-Empire 8 honoree, will lead the defense after finishing with a team-best 90 tackles.
McDaniel was picked eighth in the Centennial Conference and will feature one of the league's most explosive players in junior running back Joe Rollins, who was named a preseason All-American. Rollins led the conference with 1,401 yards rushing, averaging 140.1 yards per game.
DIVISION III FOOTBALL CAPSULES
Coach: Tom Rogish, (fifth season, 10-29)
2011 record: 4-6 overall, 3-4 Empire 8
Outlook: The Bobcats will be led by sophomore tailback JD Hook, who was named the conference Rookie of the Year. He finished the season with 1,107 all-purpose yards with six touchdowns.
Team: Johns Hopkins
Coach: Jim Margraff (23rd season, 147-79-3)