The University of Saint Francis football team's national championship rings will be awarded Sunday.
For those who are returning for another year, it's the last remnant of the celebration that began with the 38-17 win over Baker in the NAIA title game Dec. 17 in Daytona Beach, Fla.
The rings will be presented in a banquet Sunday, a day after the spring game at noon Saturday officially heralds the 2017 season at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. Admission to the spring game is free.
“For the seniors, what a way to end your senior year,” Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley said. “All of us coming back have to enjoy it until Aug. 13 comes around, then we leave it on the mantel and go back to work.”
Donley believes it has been important to savor the national title win in order to reach the point where it's time to let it go and move forward. This month of spring practice as been part of that transition process.
“I watch a highlight or portion of our game every day, from Daytona Beach,” Donley said. “You have to get enough celebration and then you have to be able to put the ring on the shelf.”
Donley pointed out that only four NAIA teams in 61 years have repeated as national champions. He returns a team capable of making such a run, albeit perhaps with a dominating defense leading the way with a complementary productive offense, somewhat of a reversal of roles from 2016. The Cougars are ranked No. 1 in the NAIA spring poll.
Asked to name defensive players who have impressed in spring practice, Donley couldn't narrow the list.
“It's hard to find one across the board who hasn't stepped up,” Donley said. “(Marcus) Stepp is moving into a new hybrid position and he's been exceptional. (James) Jamicich is just a beast. (Eric) Hemmelgarn is Hemmelgarn, he's going to force a bubble in that line. You can't handle him with just one guy. (Jordan) May looks good. The transfer (Nathan Braster from Western Michigan), we'll see him in the summer. We've got a good crew there.”
Donley says his linebackers – Piercen Harnish and Eric Dunten – remind him of the best he's seen in terms of speed and aggression. Stepp moves to a rush linebacker spot that can offer different looks.
The secondary, which includes outside linebacker/strong safety Spencer Cowherd, also returns starters in strong safety Lee Stewart and cornerback Wilmer Cole, with free safety Blake Schumacher stepping into the lineup. Ryan Johnson and Stan Jackson are competing for the other cornerback spot.
The offense returns quarterback Nick Ferrer and running back Justin Green, along with inside receiver Sean Boswell and lineman Alex Woods, Jaylen Gamble and Connor Holcomb.
The receiver corps will be vastly different with the graduation of Seth Coate, Montay McDowell and Akeim Kelsaw.
Rocky James, Dan Ricksy, Will Chrisman, Nate Carson and Andreas Gomez-Espino are vying for spots as receivers. James is the most experienced after excelling as a freshman last season.
Donley plans to run the spring game with 10-play sequences, pitting the No. 1 offense vs. the No. 1 defense at times, as well as the mixing things up.
“We want to see everybody under fire,” Donley said. “We want to identify who are the top guys coming out of this thing and planning for August accordingly. The next phase is what happens in the summer. We have had great participation in strength and conditioning the last two years and hopefully we get the same kind this summer. It's not a mandatory thing. It's strongly encouraged. We'll find out which guys believe it's really important to them.”