Washington & Jefferson preseason favorite in PAC
Washington & Jefferson's Mike Sirianni has a say in the national Division III football coaches poll this season.
“If you see a No. 1 vote (for W&J), you'll know where it came from,” he quipped.
Although the Presidents don't top the national rankings yet, the Presidents' Athletic Conference preseason poll released Wednesday left little doubt about their standing in their league.
W&J received 28 of 34 first-place votes to take the highest spot in the preseason poll, finishing with 368 total points. Thomas More, which received the other six first-place votes, finished second in the poll, followed by Bethany, Waynesburg and St. Vincent.
The Presidents shared the past three PAC titles with Thomas More, and their lofty preseason ranking came as little surprise. They return 18 starters from last season, when they made it to the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs, and are ranked fourth on the Sporting News' Division III Preseason Top 25.
“We've got a lot of returning starters, a lot of seniors, so a lot of leadership,” said senior left tackle Zack Crossey, a Penn-Trafford grad picked as a preseason All-American by several publications. “Our expectations are definitely high. We've made the playoffs and won a playoff game, so we want to just keep going.”
Sirianni said Washington & Jefferson snuck up on some teams last season because the Presidents had just nine returning starters going into the year.
That won't be the case in 2015.
“I know we have a lot of players back, but each season takes on a new personality,” Sirianni said. “So we kind of have to start over. You just see what kind of chemistry you're going to build. Obviously, we feel good about our talent. I would hope our chemistry would be good. But we try to keep it pretty level for the kids.”
A national title is the remaining unfulfilled goal at W&J. The Presidents lost to eventual champion Mount Union in the playoffs each of the past two seasons.
“There's no national championship banner at the school,” Sirianni said. “I think that's the goal of a football program, and until we do that, that is going to be our goal. I think the last few years, we've built our depth up where we can do that, but it still remains to be seen.”
Sirianni said whichever PAC team makes it to the playoffs this season will be battle-tested. Eight of the conference's 11 teams return at least 17 starters.
The PAC continues to undergo changes: Carnegie Mellon and Case Western look to take a step forward in their second season as fully affiliated conference members, Regis Scafe takes over as coach at perennial contender Thomas More and Grove City coach Chris Smith plans to retire after 32 years leading the Wolverines.
Bethany will attempt to continue its upswing after making its first postseason appearance since 1980, while St. Vincent and Westminster came on strong under first-year coaches last season.
“We have two teams in our conference in W&J and Thomas More that are nationally ranked, and everybody else is trying to shoot for that status,” said Westminster coach Scott Benzel, whose team won four of its final five games in 2014. “Competition brings out the best. If everybody's fighting, and everybody week-in and week-out has a challenge, it makes the football even better.”