Hilltoppers seen as dark horse in MEC

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. Coming off his seventh winning season in the past eight years, head coach Roger Waialae’s West Liberty University football team shapes up as a force to be reckoned with in the inaugural season of the Mountain East Conference.

That’s the view of the MEC coaches, who slotted the Hilltoppers in as a dark horse pick at No. 5 in their preseason poll, which was revealed Tuesday afternoon in the MEC’s first Football Media Day at the Bridgeport Conference Center.

Waialae and his fellow MEC coaches weren’t flying blind in their initial assessment of the 11-team league as eight of the teams came over to the nation’s newest NCAA Division II league from the now-defunct West Virginia Conference.

The WVIAC alums West Liberty, Shepherd, Charleston, Concord, Glenville State, Fairmont State, West Virginia State and West Virginia Wesleyan will join Urbana (Ohio), Notre Dame (Ohio) and the University of Virginia-Wise to compete for the first MEC football title this fall. Wheeling Jesuit, the MEC’s 12th member, does not sponsor football.

The top of the poll has a familiar look to old WVIAC fans with perennial power Shepherd coming off an NCAA Division II playoff bid donning the favorite’s mantle with 8 of the 11 first-place votes. Charleston, which just missed a post-season berth with a 9-2 mark last fall, is second with two of the remaining first-place votes while Concord is a solid third.

Glenville State barely edged out the Hilltoppers for fourth place in the poll with Urbana collecting the last first-place vote to squeeze in at No. 6. Fairmont State is a distant seventh with Notre Dame, UVA-Wise, W.Va. State and W.Va. Wesleyan rounding out the list.

Waialae will greet more than 40 lettermen, including eight starters from one of the top defensive units in the region, when the West Liberty team reports to campus later this month.

The Hilltoppers kick off the 2013 season on Saturday, Sept. 7 when the Hilltoppers head south for a non-conference game against Catawba (N.C.). Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. in Salisbury, N.C.

Here’s a look at the team-by-team capsules provided by the MEC:

SHEPHERD returns eight starters on both offense and defense from a team that went 8-3 and earned a berth in the NCAA playoffs. The Rams will have to replace starting quarterback Bobby Cooper, but SU returns its entire offensive line that will pave the way for Jihad Rasheed and Allen Cross. The Rams also boast a stout defense that has led the country in rushing defense each of the last two seasons and boasts All-America candidates Howard Jones (defensive lineman) and Keon Robinson (cornerback/return specialist).

CHARLESTON turned in a 9-2 season last year in which its two losses came by just a combined 10 points. The Golden Eagles will have to deal with the loss of one of the top all-purpose players in the country last year in Jordan Roberts, but return experience behind center in quarterbacks Maurice Leak and John Knox. UC also returns eight starters on a defense that allowed fewer than 16 points per game. All-America candidate Puma Nuredini handles the kicking and punting duties for the Golden Eagles.

CONCORD closed the 2012 season strong by winning five of its last six, but will need to replace six starters on both offense and defense. The Mountain Lions return plenty of talent on defense including All-America candidates Jake Lilly (linebacker) and Riyadh Richardson (cornerback). Sophomore running back Calvinaugh Jones will be expected to shoulder the offensive load for CU after racking up 749 yards on the ground in 2012.

GLENVILLE STATE was 6-5 last year with all five losses coming on the road. The Pioneers return one of the top running backs in the country in Rahman Lee who rushed for 1,357 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago. Quarterback Justin Feagin saw action in all 11 games last year for GSC passing for over 600 yards and adding nearly 200 yards on the ground. Senior center and All-America candidate Jon Rasnick will anchor the offensive line. James Johnson returns to the defense after notching 92 tackles a season ago.

WEST LIBERTY surged to a 6-5 record in 2012 after winning four of its final six, including a one-point win over Shepherd. Dylan Lagarde saw action in all 11 games under center for the ‘Toppers and made five starts throwing for 1,150 yards with six touchdowns and 14 interceptions. WLU returns its leading running back from last year in Isaiah Moody who added 618 yards and six touchdowns on the ground last season. The Hilltoppers will be strong on defense returning eight starters, particularly in the secondary with corner Justin Black and safeties Alec Wood and Jovantae Johnson.

URBANA finished last season with a 7-4 record and finished third in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. The Blue Knights will be led by All-America candidate quarterback D.J. Mendenhall. Mendenhall is a three-year starter for Urbana racking up 6,702 yards passing and another 1,605 rushing during his career. Mendenhall’s top target, Joe Webb, also returns after catching 63 balls for 1,074 yards despite missing two games. On defense, the Blue Knights return lineman Kyle Ferguson (58 tackles, nine tackles for a loss) and corner David McComas (70 tackles, two interceptions).

FAIRMONT STATE will be led by first-year head coach and Fighting Falcon alumnus Jason Woodman. Woodman inherits a team that went 4-6 last year but features two of the top players on either side of the ball in running back Daniel Monroe and middle linebacker Garrett Davis. Monroe is on pace to be one of the top backs in school history, and Davis led the nation last year in solo tackles per game. On top of that, offensive tackle Chris Barfield is considered to be one of the top offensive linemen in the country and has garnered preseason All-America honors.

The NOTRE DAME program is in just its fourth year of existence under head coach Adam Howard. The Falcons went 3-8 last year playing in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC). The Falcons are led by senior running back and All-America candidate Pedro Powell. Powell rushed for a school record 1,460 yards and found the end zone 11 times last year.

UVA-WISE posted a 3-8 record playing in the NAIA last year. The Cavs will be bringing back 15 starters from last year’s squad (nine on offense and six on defense), including running back Zach Cochran (301 yards and five touchdowns), wide receiver Terrance Younger (24 receptions and 516 yards) and safety Marcus Jones (65 tackles, six tackles for a loss).

WEST VIRGINIA STATE will look to first-year head coach Jon Anderson to turn the Yellow Jackets around after a 2-9 campaign in 2012. On offense, WVSU will need to replace its starting quarterback and top rusher from last year, but the defense returns end Wenly Beliard (67 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss) and defensive back Dominque Matthews (53 tackles, four tackles for a loss).

George Shehl takes over a WEST VIRGINIA WESLEYAN team that went 3-8 in 2012. The Bobcats feature one of the more explosive players in the country in wide receiver and return specialist Lavaughn Hughes, who led NCAA Division II last year with 453 punt return yards and also added three punt return touchdowns. On defense, WVWC lost its three top tacklers to graduation, but returns solid defensive backs James Williamson and Jermichael Kelly.