September 09, 2011

New Era in Hamline Football Begins Saturday

 The coaching staff is new. The offense is new. The defense is new. There are more than two dozen fresh faces on board. Before the first practice was even held, it was obvious the 2011 Hamline University football season will look decidedly different than its predecessors. First-year head coach John Pate wouldn’t have it any other way. Having been involved with five NCAA Division 1-AA championship teams at Georgia Southern, Pate is looking forward to the challenge of running a team in one of the best Division III conferences in the country, the MIAC.

It starts for real this Saturday when the Pipers visit Washington state for a rematch with Pacific Lutheran. Last year, the Lutes held off the Pipers for a 27-20 victory at Klas Field.

What will be different this year?

“We will be more athletic,” Pate said. “I can promise you that. We will be young and inexperienced in some areas. But we will grow together. If you are athletic and mobile, you can accomplish a lot of good things on the field. And that is what we are looking to accomplish in 2011.”

45 players return for Pate and his staff. Among them is a pair of senior quarterbacks – Adam Meyer (Cold Spring, Minn.) and Connor Sathre (Waconia, Minn.) Meyer saw the majority of the action last season, throwing for 1583 yards and nine TDs. Sathre appeared in nine games and finished second on the team in rushing yards.  Sathre is expected to get the starting nod Saturday afternoon.

 “Adam and Connor know the league better than I do. That’s important because they can tell us coaches things that aren’t always apparent on film,” Pate said.

Speed is of the essence in the option offense Pate intends to employ. Tim Queck (Sr-Annandale, Minn.)  has moved from a wide receiver position into the backfield and joins  junior Blake Cook (Fridley, Minn.) as the top returnees. First-year players Zach Deitchman (Phoenix, Ariz.), Corey Touchette (Bainbridge Island, Wash.), Hoyfal Adam (Brooklyn Park, Minn.) and sophomores Peterson Pierre (Saint Paul, Minn.) and Joey Propati (Borrego Springs, Calif.) are also in the mix. “It’s going to be an interesting, open competition,” Pate said.

With Queck, who caught 41 passes last year, likely to move to the backfield, new faces will likely abound in the receiver positions.  Dessalien Similhomme (So-Rochester, Minn.) and Terry Schwartz (Sr-Saint Paul, Minn.)  may get the first looks but there are plenty of first-year players in the mix. Arthur Moore (Maplewood, Minn.) is one of three first-year players expected to start Saturday. One of the most interesting transitions may occur at tight end where former OL Andrew Viereck (Sr-Prior Lake, Minn.) has battled with junior Ben Del Greco (Jr-Sandstone, Minn.) for playing time. “It’s all about athleticism,” Pate said. “We really won’t know for sure until we see them in training camp for a few days.”

Fortunately, a veteran offensive line, anchored by center Jimmy Stone (Sr-Taylors Falls, Minn.) returns. Guards Morgan Scheper (Sr-Carleton, Ore.) and Joe Morelli (So-Linwood, Wash) and tackles Patrick Chilton (So-Hesperia, Calif.) and Stephen Girard (Jr-Milaca, Minn.) are accustomed to the MIAC grind. In all, there were a dozen offensive linemen in camp. “This could be the strength of the team,” said Charlie Hopkins, the team’s offensive line coach. “We need these guys to be leaders for us.”

As is the case on offense, the Piper defense will feature some familiar faces in new roles. Cory Olsen (Sr-Elk River, Minn.), who was third on the Pipers in tackles in 2010 as a linebacker, has been moved to the end position. “He runs well for a guy who is 6-5, 250,” Pate said.  Eric Klaers (Jr- Elk River, Minn.), a second team All-MIAC pick a year ago,  is being moved to a tackle spot as well. He and senior Nick Wyatt (Jonesboro, GA) offers size and agility up front. “It looks like we may have some depth there,’ too,” Pate said. “That’s a definite plus.”

There is movement as well in the linebacking corps. Alex Ferguson (Jr- Kent, Wash.) had a terrific spring after being moved up from the secondary where he had eight solo tackles last year. He will likely start Saturday along with Josh Bain, a fifth year senior (Grand Meadow, Minn.) and Olajuwan Stiffler (So-Troutdale, Ore.), who was fourth in tackles in 2010, have the early inside advantage for starting jobs.

In the secondary, FS John-Michael Vandenberg (So-Bothel, Wash.), who led the Pipers in tackles, breakups and deflections in 2010, returns. From there, however, new faces have emerged. Marc McDonald (Jr-Portland, Ore.) had a solid spring after moving from cornerback to strong safety, where he will be the starter. This leaves openings for new corners. “That is the biggest unknown we have going in,” Pate said. “”This could be the most competitive battle in training camp.” Damon Woods (Fy-Burnsville, Minn.) and Guelord Mpaghize (Jr-Rochester, Minn.) are listed as Saturday's starters.

John Broback, the first team All-MIAC placekicker and second team punter in 2010, has graduated. Ferguson will handle the punting and placekicking duties Saturday. Queck tied for the team lead in kickoff returns last year.  Deitchman and sophomore Peterson Pierre (Saint Paul, Minn.), who is also a backfield candidate, may also get a chance to return kicks.

The Pipers were one of two teams that did not play last weekend. They spent part of their training camp at Camp Ripley, located a couple of hours off campus. Normally a training facility for military recruits, Pate and his staff used it as a time to get the know the players better ... and vice versa.  "It was a great experience," Pate said. "I think everybody learned a lot." After this matchup with the Lutes, HU returns home September 17 to open MIAC play against Augsburg, who stuck HU with the most heart-rendering loss of the 2010 season, a come-from-behind 42-38 affair.

It is one of just four games the Pipers will play at Klas Field. HU will also face Gustavus Adolphus, Concordia and finished the season with perennial power St. John’s. They visit Northfield twice to face Carleton and St. Olaf and also have conference road dates at NCAA Division III quarterfinalists St. Thomas and Bethel. Their other game is the traditional non-conference meeting at Macalester.

But that is down the road. For now, there is the special excitement that is always in the air with the first game of the season. That excitement is intensified with the arrival of the new head coach and his staff and the challenge of facing a quality opponent (PLU was 8-1 last year) on the road.

“I’ve heard a lot of good things about MIAC football,” Pate said. “And I’m very impressed with what I have seen on film. I like this team. We have some very good athletes here who are hungry to win. There will be a bit of an adjustment period for all of us. But the players are excited to get going and so am I. We’re all ready to begin a new era here.”

Piper fans check the game out online by clicking to this link:  http://client.stretchinternet.com/client/plu.portal.