DAVENPORT – To say that expectations are high for this year's St. Ambrose University football team may be an understatement.|
"I think everybody in here has one goal and that's to win the last game of the season,'' said Bettendorf's Mitch Overstreet during Tuesday's media day festivities inside the SAU Bubble. "We all want to win a national title and that's what everyone is shooting for. … Definitely not easy, but realistic.''
The Bees have plenty of experience to build upon from a 9-2 2012 campaign, returning 15 starters and a number of others with turf time under their belts that will help pay big dividends. After sharing the Mid-States Football Association Midwest League crown with a 5-1 mark, the Bees were handed a 45-28 home NAIA playoff loss that ended their season.
"I'm still bitter about that loss and have a bit of a chip on my shoulder going into the season,'' said senior linebacker Jeremy Wallace.
"Obviously, the expectations are high with the number of kids we have back,'' said head coach Mike Magistrelli, who is hoping his seventh year heading the program turns out to be a lucky one. "We have a number of kids who have quite a bit of experience on both sides of the ball. A lot of those guys experienced a good amount of success in ultimately coming up short a year ago in the playoffs. So there's a lot of hunger and excitement to not only achieve our goals, but accomplish some things we did not get done a year ago.''
The Bees, ranked No. 11 in the NAIA preseason poll, have plenty of talent to build around on both sides of the ball.
On offense, it all starts with Eric Williamson. The senior quarterback from Springfield threw for 2,985 yards and a single-season school record of 35 touchdown passes en route to earning 2012 Midwest League Player of the Year honors.
"Eric is certainly not alone'' in being able to help the offense, said Magistrelli, who points to senior running back Cole Kelly (159 carries, 814 yards, six TDs) as a key along with a rebuilt offensive line and retooling receiving corps.
Always humbly downplaying his role, Williamson sees such a talented supporting cast of skill players that he says "the sky is the limit'' for this offense. That's even with the loss of his top target in Zach Grant, who transferred after a record-setting freshman season (91 catches, 1,170 yards, 16 TDs) and ultimately ended up walking on at the University of Illinois.
"He made his decision (to leave) and we're moving on,'' said Williamson, noting the offense won't change much in Grant's absence. "We have new guys to step in for him and I think they can be just as good as he was.''
One solid target returns in Andrew Friedrich. The senior TE from Davenport Assumption caught 24 passes for 468 yards and seven TDs last season. Another senior, speedy Mike Munro, caught 18 passes for 328 yards and three TDs. Also expected to be on the receiving end of a number of Williamson passes are senior Sam O'Donnell and sophomore Brad Connor.
"We may not have that single top-end receiver like we had a year ago with Grant or before that with (Michael) Hayward,'' said Magistrelli, "but as a group, this is the most talented and best receiving corps that we have had.''
On defense, it starts with a very strong nucleus in the second and third levels. Right in the middle is Wallace, the record-setting 2012 AFCA NAIA All-American at linebacker. SAU also returns fellow linebackers Ryan Chambers and Tyler Donaldson. Jordan Bell, Sean Kelly and Steve Thomas return in the secondary.
"I think we're going to be a good defense,'' said Wallace. "We lost a few guys, but I'm very comfortable with the guys who have stepped in there, guys who got some playing time last year and got comfortable with the defense and got experience. I think we'll be solid and I'm really excited.''
The Bees may need to be their best on both sides of the ball this season. A very challenging schedule includes a closing stretch of three of their final four on the road and their lone home game in that stretch against national power St. Xavier, the 4th-ranked NAIA team this season which bounced over from the Mideast League this season. That closing four weeks also includes games at No. 19 Grand View and at crossover foe St. Francis, Ill., which is receiving votes.
In an odd scheduling twist, it will take the Bees a few weeks to debut this club. Having their off week in Week 1, SAU doesn't open until hosting Taylor in an MSFA crossover game on Sept. 14 at Brady Street Stadium.
Not only will the Bees be on display that day, so will an intangible that everyone in the program helps carry them to some titles.
"Being my third year here,'' said Overstreet, "there's a drive that I haven't seen here before.''
All in the program hope it leads to a trip to the NAIA title game in December.
Meet the Bees
The coaches: Head coach Mike Magistrelli is starting his seventh year at the helm and sports a 43-21 record. He is assisted by: Jeff Girsch (defensive coordinator), Matt Drinkall (offensive coordinator/offensive line), Rick Fountain (linebackers), Alex Kretzschmar (wide receivers), John Michaletti (defensive backs), Ed Morrissey (outside linebackers), Mark O'Connor (defensive backs), Mark Schlichting (defensive line), Nick Schroder (tight ends), Mike Tetlow (defensive line), Nick Trout (running backs).
Returning offensive starters (7): Chris Dawson (Sr., OL); Andrew Friederich (Sr., TE, Assumption); Cole Kelly (Sr., RB); Dan Mahoney (Jr., OL); Mike Munro (Sr., WR); Mitch Overstreet (Sr., TE, Bettendorf); Eric Williamson (Sr., QB).
Returning defensive starters (8): Jordan Bell (Sr., CB); Ryan Chambers (Sr., LB); Tyler Donaldson (Sr., LB); Sean Kelly (Sr., SS); Steve Laski (Jr., DL); Cory Price (Sr., DL); Steve Thomas (Jr., CB); Jeremy Wallace (Sr., LB).
The schedule: Sept 14: Taylor (Ind.) 1 p.m.; Sept. 21: at St. Francis (Ind.), 6 p.m.; Sept. 28: Concordia (Mich.), 1 p.m.; Oct. 5: at William Penn, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 12: Trinity International, 1 p.m.; Oct. 19: Olivet Nazarene, 1 p.m.; Oct. 26: at Grand View, 1 p.m.; Nov. 2: St. Xavier, 1 p.m.; Nov. 9: at St. Francis (Ill.), 1 p.m. Nov. 16: at Waldorf, 1 p.m.
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