LEWISTON, Maine -- Could this be the year the Bates College football team takes a big step forward? Or might that have occurred already, last year, in disguise?
The Bobcats finished 2-6 in 2010, but while no one wants to make excuses, their record could have been markedly different. After lifting a long-standing burden by beating Tufts in Week 2, they were on the verge of being 2-2, holding a 20-14 lead late in the fourth quarter, two fumbles in the final two minutes of the game helped Wesleyan prevail 27-20. In Week 5, the Bobcats allowed another potential win get away, turning the ball over on downs, a yard short of a first down, inside the Colby 5 as the Mules escaped Garcelon Field with a 10-6 win. Bates was in position the following week to lick its wounds with a win at Bowdoin, but more frustrating miscues led to a 21-20 setback.
In other words, playing shoulda/coulda vigorously enough could lead one to surmise that the distance between 2-6 and 5-3 was traversable. Bates' senior class of players plans on making this the year that distance is bridged. "Our senior class this year has a lot more guys that have seen significant playing time for us," said 14th-year head coach Mark Harriman. "It's one of the strongest group of leaders we've had since I've been here," starting with the captains: linebacker Kevin Helm (Norwell, Mass.), defensive lineman Pat Quinn (Milford, Mass.) and offensive lineman Andrew Scichilone (Sandwich, Mass.).
In the second year of Bates' implementation of the triple option offense, the backfield is primed to step forward with an effective and hard to defend ground attack. The Bobcats' leading rusher in his first two seasons, shifty and hard-charging junior Patrick George (Gloucester, Mass.), will be one constant option for junior quarterback Trevor Smith (Malvern, Pa.) to go to on running plays, as will fellow "dive back" sophomore Ryan Curit (South Portland, Maine), who showed a flash of potential last season at Bowdoin, with 47 yards on seven carries, and looked particularly strong in Bates' preseason scrimmage against Colby. Juniors Ryan MacDonald (Melrose, Mass.) and Teddy Downs (South Boston, Mass.) and first-year Lani Eversage (Swanville, Maine) form a swift and potent group of slotbacks for Smith to pitch to.
One big question heading into preseason was who would play quarterback -- Smith and Ryan Katon '12 had more or less split the snaps over the past two seasons, with pretty comparable results. But Katon opted to leave the team prior to preseason practices, making the athletic and talented Smith Bates' undisputed signal-caller. Smith (career: 11 games, 106-199-9, 1207 yards, 9 TD) looked sharp in the Colby scrimmage and may prove to be the key to Bates' fortunes.
Paired with the triple option backfield, the team's biggest offensive weapon is 6-foot-7 wide receiver John Squires (Swampscott, Mass.), who emerged last season as the threat that opposing defenses and coaches must account for on every down. Squires caught 30 passes for 510 yards and six touchdowns in 2010, including a sparkling nine-catch, 142-yard, two-touchdown performance in Bates' win over Tufts. Opposite Squires at the other wide receiver position is senior Tom Finkenstaedt (Norwell, Mass.), a heady presence on the field who started all eight games last season, catching eight passes for 65 yards. Sophomore Kevin Davis (North Andover, Mass.) could become a primary target for Smith as well.
The Bobcats figured to have a deep and experienced offensive line to build their offense around, but that was before preseason injuries dashed the hopes of 2010 starters Ryan Weston (Bangor, Maine), an All-NESCAC left tackle, and junior Mark Sylvester (Everett, Mass.), already a two-year starter. Bates still has some high-quality players returning to the line, but may require a less-experienced player to step forward into a starting role, which today's starting left guard, rookie Larry Guinee (Peabody, Mass.), has done. The returning starters are Scichilone, who started at center for Bates' first two games last season but suffered a season-ending injury, and sophomore Liam O'Neil (Duxbury, Mass.), who earned the starting right tackle job last year in an impressive rookie season. After an impressive showing in preseason practice, junior Matt Antonellis (Sudbury, Mass.), an athletic former tight end, will start at left tackle, and sophomore Michael Bernstein (New York, N.Y.), who played well as a rookie, starts at right guard to form a massive right side of the line with O'Neil.
Promising rookies on the offensive side of the ball for Bates include quarterback Matt Cannone (Windham, N.H.) wide receiver Kyle Farber (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) and slotback Mac Jackson (Hood River, Ore.).
At outside linebacker, which in Bates' scheme is a kind of hybrid linebacker/defensive back position, senior Brett McAllister (Exeter, N.H.) is a fourth-year starter with excellent playmaking ability on one side. Into the opposite OLB position slips 6-foot-0, 205-pound senior Cam Evans (Norwell, Mass.), another fourth-year starter and proven playmaker who makes the unusual transition from cornerback to linebacker. Kyle Aulet (Belmont, Mass.) is another linebacker, like Taft and Drinkwater, poised to make a big impact in his senior season.
The secondary is spearheaded by sophomore free safety Andrew Kukesh (Exeter, N.H.), whose explosive rookie season netted six interceptions and All-NESCAC honors. Juniors Chris Alfiero (Polson, Mont.) and Kyle Starr (Concord, N.H.), both of whom have a year of experience at starting cornerback, return as Bates' top cover men.
The challenge that Bates' defensive line may never quite overcome is replacing graduated All-NESCAC tackle Devin Horvath. But big, talented and athletic Tyler Kuehl (Plymouth, N.H.) is back for another season of big plays, and he and Quinn head a promising group that includes junior Matt Gaither (Winchester, Mass.), sophomore Matt Comstock (Amherst, N.H.)
A strong group of rookie prospects will be called upon quickly, among them defensive end Sam Hundley (Cheshire, Conn.) and linebackers Steven Hild (West Hartford, Conn.), Gilbert Brown (Gloucester, Mass.) and Josh Freedland (Marblehead, Mass.).
Four seasons with Gavin Segall-Abrams as Bates' full-time punter and kicker have come to an end. Junior Evan Dowd (Longmeadow, Mass.) starts in Week 1 at punter, while the placekicker is sophomore Charlie Donahue (Plymouth, N.H.). Alfiero and McAllister are likely to handle kick returns, and Quinn returns as Bates' reliable long snapper.
Harriman says if Bates can maintain its upward arc in terms of physicality -- he says that's what led Bates to getting into more crunch-time situations in 2010 than in 2009 -- then experience and accountability should take over when the Bobcats return to crunch time.
"We will be in those close, late-game situations again," he said, "and our biggest challenge is having confidence in our abilities and finding a way to come out on top."