SLIPPERY ROCK — Being chosen the favorite to win the PSAC West doesn’t mean much to IUP’s Curt Cignetti. Being a near-unanimous pick means even less.
What does matter to the third-year coach is how his Crimson Hawks will respond to the pressure of being the team with a bull’s-eye on its back.
Coming off a 12-2 season a year ago, the Crimson Hawks were made the odds-on favorites in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division preseason coaches’ poll. The results of the poll were released Monday at the annual media day at Slippery Rock’s Robert M. Smith Student Center.
“We put ourselves in this position based on what we’ve done in the past,” said Cignetti, who has a 19-5 record in two seasons at IUP. “(The poll) really is no indicator of what will happen in the future, but it does mean that people respect what we have done. But I’m anxious to get going.”
Seven of the eight coaches in the PSAC West tabbed IUP as the favorite, with second-place Mercyhurst receiving one first-place vote. Slippery Rock was third, followed by California, Gannon, Edinboro, Clarion and PSAC newcomer Seton Hill.
Last year, IUP and California shared the top spot in the poll, but this year the Crimson Hawks
are the clear-cut favorite. They return eight starters on offense and seven on defense from a team that won division and conference crowns and advanced to the NCAA Division II quarterfinals.
But if there’s one thing Cignetti refuses to do, it’s talk much about the past.
“It’s time to go again,” he said. “I’m excited. What we did in the past is in the past, and this is a new team. Every day, we’re going to have to invest to get the desired results.”
The players have bought into the idea, too.
“Last year is in the past,” said senior linebacker Alexander Berdahl. “We kind of have to forget about it. But I think the thing we can remember is the good experience we got from it. We know what it takes now to get back there. But Coach is right: It’s in the past. We have to focus on this year. If we think about last year, we’ll never get to where we need to be. … The polls don’t mean anything to us. We don’t focus on them. They don’t mean anything.”
The Crimson Hawks report for training camp Thursday. They open the season Sept. 7 at Southern Connecticut State.
Cignetti is excited about the potential he sees when he looks at his team’s roster.
“We’ve got a lot of football players who played good, successful football for us last year,” he said. “And we’ve got some newcomers who look like they have good ability. So I’m excited about every facet of our football team. I like where we’re at right now.”
That might be bad news for the rest of the division. Only Clarion and Slippery Rock have more returning starters than IUP, which is 11-3 in the division since Cignetti took over.
But Clarion coach Jay Foster knows having a lot of starters back won’t matter if they don’t stay healthy. Last season, injuries were a huge factor in the Golden Eagles’ disappointing 4-7 season.
“Our depth issue comes in because after the starter, the next guy in? You love him, but he’s just not ready to play in this division, against the Californias and IUPs of the world,” Foster admitted. “But I do believe that if we can stay healthy, that we can compete. But attrition is one of the things we know will happen.”
California’s fourth-place finish in the poll is its lowest in a number of years, but Vulcans coach Mike Kellar said any reports of his team’s demise are premature. At one point, California was the highest-funded program in the league, but budget constraints have forced things to be reeled in a bit — not that Kellar is looking for excuses.
“Things have changed a little bit for everyone,” Kellar said. “Do we have an abundance? No, but we have enough to be a force in this league. But it’s not like you can go out and buy a championship. Look at the (New York) Yankees. They have the highest payroll in baseball and they’re in third place in their division. You have to go out and sign the right kids and then coach them right, and then they have to buy into what you’re trying to do. That’s how you win. The truth of the matter is that in this game, it comes down to blocking and tackling.”
So while the rest of the coaches in the PSAC West predict a middle-of-the-pack finish for the Vulcans, Kellar is expecting big things for a program that won at least a share of the division title from 2005 to 2011.
“We worry about the short-term,” Kellar said. “Preseason rankings, even when we are No. 1, don’t mean very much. It is what it is. I’m not surprised by it at all. I heard it when we were on the other end of it. It doesn’t matter. We can’t worry about that.”
The Vulcans, and the rest of the PSAC West for that matter, also can’t worry about Cignetti and the Crimson Hawks, who have soared back to the top of the division after a troubling downturn in 2009 and 2010.
Cignetti acknowledged there are high expectations for his team this season, especially after last year’s playoff run. But, as always, he is keeping his focus on today, believing tomorrow will take care of itself.
“I’ve always been excited this time of year, with every team I’ve been with,” he said. “I think, the way we finished last season, we had a little bit of an empty feeling in our stomachs that — hopefully — everybody has kind of learned from and can apply as some added motivation to catapult us to another level this year.”
Polls are nice to talk about, Cignetti said, but he finished by stating what everyone could agree on.
“It all,” he said, “will be decided on the field.”
NOTES: Cignetti said he is still awaiting word from the NCAA on the eligibility of running back De’Antwan “Rocket” Williams. A former transfer from Rutgers, Williams is trying to gain a year of eligibility that would allow him to play this fall. Williams rushed for 1,325 yards last season. … Defending champion Shippensburg is the favorite in the East Division, followed by Bloomsburg, West Chester, Kutztown, East Stroudsburg, Lock Haven, Millersville and Cheyney. … Lock Haven moved from the West to the East with the addition of Seton Hill, which joined the league July 1.