IUP FOOTBALL: Crimson Hawks picked to finish first in PSAC West again
SLIPPERY ROCK — When expectations are high, football coaches tend to do one of two things: embrace them or avoid them. IUP’s Curt Cignetti isn’t running from anything.
Because he’s more concerned with the postseason polls than the preseason rankings, Cignetti, the Crimson Hawks’ fourth-year coach, shrugged off the news Monday that his team was picked again as the favorite in the PSAC West. But when asked about the lofty expectations, Cignetti offered this:
“It doesn’t mean a whole lot,” he said. “This is three years in a row that there’s a big bull’s-eye on us. We are gonna engage it. Come and get us. We’ll be ready.”
The results of the preseason coaches’ poll were announced at the annual Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference media luncheon at the Robert M. Smith Student Center. To little surprise, the Crimson Hawks were tabbed as the favorite in the West Division — they went 9-2 last year and have a lot of their starters back.
But dealing with the expectations has become a common theme at IUP since Cignetti arrived in town from Alabama in 2011. He admittedly sets the bar high, and the goals don’t change even if the roster does.
“Look, we’re sixth all-time in winning percentage,” he said. “We are in the top 15 in games won. We’ve got a great tradition and history of success.
“The program was a little bit down when I took it over — 5-9 in the league (2009 and 2010). But we’re 28-7 the last three years. … I guess it just means that we’ve got some respect around here, but we’ve got to earn it.”
Five of the eight PSAC West coaches picked IUP first on their ballot. The other three chose California, which went 7-4 last season. Defending champion Slippery Rock was picked third, followed by Mercyhurst, Gannon, Edinboro, Clarion and Seton Hill.
IUP center Matt Sasson, one of the team’s 10 returning starters, doesn’t put much stock into these polls.
“It means more about our reputation than anything — that people think we’re going to put together a good team,” he said. “Whether that happens depends entirely on us.”
Linebacker Alexander Berdahl, who returns after missing almost the entire 2013 season (broken hand), agreed that expectations don’t mean much if they’re not met.
“What it really means is that we need to come together as a team during this camp and become one,” Berdahl said. “The rankings don’t really mean anything to us.”
Cignetti said there are no easy games on the schedule, and some of the teams the Crimson Hawks will play this year will keep him up with worry. Chief among them might be Gannon, which went 6-5 last year, but returns nine starters on each side of the ball.
“I think they’re potentially a very scary football team,” Cignetti said.
Golden Knights coach Brad Rzyczycki said despite being picked fifth in the eight-team PSAC West, he expects big things from his team.
“If there is a year when I expect us to come out and play and have some success,” he said, “it’s this year.”
Cignetti also worries about Edinboro, a team that handed the Crimson Hawks a shocking 36-30 loss at Miller Stadium last season — IUP’s only home loss the past two years.
But Fighting Scots coach Scott Browning isn’t promising a repeat upset of IUP because he has too many other things to worry about, mainly a grueling schedule that includes perennial national power Carson-Newman in the opening weekend, followed by games against Shippensburg, East Stroudsburg and California (all of which went 7-4 last year), and then a home date with IUP on Oct. 4.
“We could be a really good football team and our record may not show it,” Browning said. “I’ve been at Edinboro for 29 seasons, and this is probably the toughest schedule we’ve played in any of those years.”
The Crimson Hawks visit rival California for the annual Coal Bowl on Oct. 18, and by then Vulcans coach Mike Kellar hopes to know what kind of team he has. As of right now, though, the third-year coach couldn’t care less that he and his colleagues picked California second in the preseason poll.
Because really, in early August, who knows how things will turn out?
“None of us are that smart to be able to do that,” Kellar said. “I mean, it’s nice to be picked second. It would be nice to be picked first. But being picked last doesn’t really matter, either. The score is 0-0 in all these games. The end of the year is what matters most.”
That’s the point Cignetti emphasized about his team: Being picked first is nice, but the end of the journey is more important than the start.
“At the end of the year,” he said, “we’ll look back and evaluate. But I’m excited about them, on paper.”
NOTES: Senior safety Eric Williams and sophomore defensive lineman Patrick Ferguson are academically ineligible and will not play this season. But Cignetti said both could be back next year if their grades improve. … Safety James Griffin and cornerback Emmanuel McPhearson left the team over the summer for personal reasons. … Fullback Dom Maggio (neck) has chosen not to return for his senior season. He missed all of spring ball because of the injury. … Cignetti said safety Kole Kraut is “probably done,” playing football because of severe knee injuries he suffered each of the past two seasons. … The Crimson Hawks’ first practice of the season is Friday. … West Chester is the prohibitive favorite in the PSAC East. The Rams garnered seven of the eight first-place votes.