Alfred picked to return to top of E8

Alfred, which became the only school other than Ithaca to win an outright Empire 8 football title in 2010, has been chosen to capture its third consecutive conference title according to the 2011 Empire 8 Football Preseason Coaches Poll. The conference champion earns an automatic berth to the NCAA Division III Championship.

The Saxons received six first-place votes and finished well ahead of second-choice Salisbury University, which is competing in the Empire 8 for the first time. Alfred, which finished 10-3 a year ago and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division III Football Championship, is ranked 18th in the Preseason Top 25.

Senior linebacker Nick Clark and junior defensive tackle Mike Raplee of the Saxons were each named second-team preseason All-Americans by Clark, the reigning Empire 8 Defensive Player of the Year, is a three-time all-conference selection who led the team with 112 tackles last season, including 12.5 tackles for loss, while adding four sacks, three interceptions, and five pass break-ups. He also led the squad with 12 touchdowns as the team’s short-yardage back. Raplee recorded 87 tackles, including six sacks and a team-high 18 tackles for loss to join Clark on the all-conference first team.

Other first-team all-conference returnees for Alfred are 2010 Empire 8 Rookie of the Year Austin Dwyer, senior defensive back Roland O’Brien, and senior placekicker Eric Rockwood. Dwyer was named to the first team as a running back and all-purpose player. He averaged 146.2 yards per game rushing in conference play and ranked among the national leaders in all-purpose yards. O’Brien led the Empire 8 in interceptions, picking off a pass in six consecutive regular season contests. Rockwood set a school record with 50 consecutive extra points.

Salisbury joins the Empire 8 after a 7-3 season in 2010, which included a trip to the NCAA Division III Football Championship. The Sea Gulls have an illustrious history, which includes seven consecutive postseason appearances, seven NCAA trips, three ECAC bowl championships, and two undefeated regular seasons. The Sea Gulls received one first-place vote.

Four Salisbury players were tabbed D3 Senior Classic Preseason All-Americans. Superback Randal Smedley earned first-team south honors after a season in which he ran for 947 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 8.2 yards per carry and 118.4 yards per game. Alex Smith anchored the offensive line, which led the way for 3,951 rushing yards in 2010. Defensive back Ricky Cassidy made 55 tackles and led the team with 11 pass defenses, and nose guard Matt Leon recorded 42 stops, including 10 for a loss.

St. John Fisher College, which has shared four of the past seven conference titles, narrowly edged Springfield College for third place in the coaches’ poll. The Cardinals, who have not gone more than two seasons without an Empire 8 title since 2003, finished 9-2 last season and finished with a 56-13 win over Renssalear in the ECAC Northwest Bowl Championship. The bowl game marked the Cardinals’ eighth consecutive trip to the postseason.

Despite the loss to graduation of 2010 Empire 8 Offensive Player of the Year Tim Bailey, St. John Fisher returns five first-team all-conference players. Senior linebacker Joe Leavell posted a team-high 98 tackles, including seven for loss, last year.

Senior Corey Balcerzak keyed an offensive line that led the Cardinals to 43.3 points and 486.7 yards per game a year ago. Senior wide receiver Ryan Schmidt, sophomore running back Ryan Kramer, and senior kick returner Ryan Francis all garnered first-team all-conference honors last season. Schmidt finished with 1,075 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, Kramer led the team with 14 touchdowns (nine rushing, four receiving, one punt return) and Francis averaged 30 yards per kick return.

Springfield received one first-place vote and is the coaches’ choice to finish fourth. The 2006 Empire 8 co-champions are competing in the conference for the final time. Head Coach Mike DeLong enters his 30th season overall and 28th at the school as the winningest active football coach in New England Division III with 271 wins. The Pride are coming off a 9-2 season, topped off by a 26-17 win over Mount Ida in the ECAC Division III North Atlantic Bowl Championship.

Springfield averaged 389 yards rushing per game last season with 50 rushing touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Austin Bateman averaged 95.3 yards per game rushing to lead the team that featured seven rushers averaging at least 40 yards per contest. Senior offensive lineman Sean Meagher earned second-team all-conference honors last year.

Salisbury (30th), Springfield (32nd), and St. John Fisher (39th) all received votes and were ranked in the Preseason Poll.

To show the depth of the conference, five-time conference champion (including four of the five solo titles in Empire 8 history) Ithaca has been chosen fifth in the preseason coaches’ poll. The Bombers are coming off a 6-4 season overall for their 40th consecutive winning season.

Senior defensive back Mike Conti, junior defensive back Spencer White, and senior punter/placekicker Andrew Rogowski all return after being named to the all-conference first team a season ago. Conti intercepted six passes and broke up seven more, returning an interception and a fumble recovery for touchdowns. White totaled 50 tackles with a pair of interceptions and four pass break-ups. Rogowski was named the first Special Teams Player of the Year in history. He averaged 35.3 yards per kick, placing 22 punts inside the 20-yard line, and made a conference-high nine field goals.

Utica College, which finished at .500 last season, is the coaches’ pick to place sixth this year. Senior defensive back Jon White returns for the Pioneers after earning second-team all-conference honors last season. The Pioneers averaged 46.8 points per game in non-conference play in 2010.

Hartwick, which shared the 2007 conference championship with St. John Fisher, was picked to place seventh in the preseason poll. Senior running back Anthony Cassimano and senior wide receiver Jordan Wilkins were each named to the all-conference second team last year.

Frostburg State is the coaches’ selection to finish eighth in its inaugural season in the conference. Senior quarterback Josh Volpe is the career leader in completion percentage and ranks 11th in career touchdown passes and 13th in career passing yards.

In nine seasons, the Empire 8 has recorded 24 postseason victories, including a 4-1 mark last season. The returning Empire 8 teams posted a 29-6 non-conference record last season (with Springfield, St. John Fisher and Utica going undefeated in non-conference play) and an 83-29 mark against non-conference Division III opponents over the past four years for a .741 winning percentage.

2011 Empire 8 Football Preseason Coaches Poll

1. Alfred University (6 first-place votes)              48 points
2. Salisbury University (1)                                    39
3. St. John Fisher College                                     36
4. Springfield College (1)                                     35
5. Ithaca College                                                   27
6. Utica College                                                    15
7. Hartwick College                                              14
8. Frostburg State                                               10