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Academics bigger part of PAC's appeal

| Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, 9:44 p.m.

How to recruit football players to an NCAA Division III program is a skill first-year Westminster coach Scott Benzel only recently began to develop.

Until he took the Westminster job in January, Benzel, a Plum grad, spent his time trying to convince prospects to play at FCS programs St. Francis (Pa.) and Robert Morris, the two previous stops in his coaching career.

As Benzel and several other coaches indicated at the Presidents' Athletic Conference media day Wednesday at St. Vincent in Latrobe, because D-III teams have no athletic scholarships or spacious, state-of-the-art training facilities to offer, their sales pitches must focus on other aspects. In the PAC, that increasingly means a school's academic variety and reputation.

“The biggest difference for us was understanding how competitive recruiting is at this level,” said Benzel, who previously served as a defensive coordinator at St. Francis and Robert Morris. “You've got to be very, very good at articulating your strengths as a college.”

Whatever Washington & Jefferson coach Mike Sirianni and Thomas More coach Jim Hilvert convey to recruits must work like a charm because the Presidents and Saints, who have combined to claim at least a share of the PAC title each of the last eight years, enter the season as the conference's frontrunners.

With 29 of the 34 first-place votes, Thomas More took the top spot in the PAC preseason poll, which included coaches, media members and sports information directors. W&J, which received two first-place votes, took second, and Waynesburg followed at third.

“We have a ton of ability,” said Sirianni, who returns six starters on offense and five on defense. “We don't have many seniors. But we have a great recruiting class.”

With the addition of Carnegie Mellon and Case Western Reserve, the PAC increased to 11 teams and enhanced its collection of schools known for high academic standards. Case Western placed fourth in the poll, and CMU came in seventh.

From Benzel to Geneva's Geno DeMarco and Waynesburg's Rick Shepas, the coaches discussed how certain fields of study figured prominently in recruits' decisions to attend their schools. The PAC might not churn out under-the-radar NFL prospects at a prodigious rate, but it produces bundles of engineers, they agreed.

“It's tough coaching kids that are smarter than you, trust me on that,” Case Western coach Greg Debeljak said. “And these are sharp, sharp kids.”

CMU and Case Western, which remain affiliated with the University Athletic Association but now also belong to the PAC, will compete for the conference's championship and automatic berth to the D-III playoffs.

Last season, CMU went 2-3 against teams currently in the PAC as part of a season in which the Tartans finished 3-7, their worst record under Rich Lackner, entering his 29th season.

“I think last season was a little bit of a slap in the face, and hopefully it was a wake-up call for our guys,” Lackner said. “I follow a lot of the PAC teams. I know a lot of these (coaches), and I see the talent they recruit in this region. … But I'd like to get in there and see them up close, and see how we do.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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