The party's over. Should they pencil in another one?
It was indeed a heck of party for the University of Saint Francis football team, starting with the NAIA national championship win over Baker in Daytona Beach, Fla., in December, continuing into the spring and spilling into the summer.
Now it's time for some heavy lifting under the weight of urgency and the pressure of heightened expectations.
While the seriousness of 2017 began to kick in for returning players during spring practice, it reaches full impact when players report for fall camp Saturday. The first official practice is Monday morning at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium.
Saint Francis is ranked No. 1 in the NAIA preseason coaches poll and, for the first time in the 20-year history of the program, the Cougars will be defending the NAIA national title.
Here are some big questions as preparation begins in earnest for the Sept. 2 opener at Jamestown (N.D.):
1. Is the hunger still there?
There's always a temptation to turn fat and happy after a championship. It's not intentional. It's human nature to feel satisfied, gazing backward, after a mountaintop experience.
Coach Kevin Donley's job will be to nip complacency in the bud.
Chances are strong Donley will do just that. He didn't become the winningest active coach in football without knowing a thing or two about the psychology of a team. He'll push the necessary buttons. He'll let returning starters know nothing is guaranteed, including those starting jobs. That's the good thing about having a successful program with a deep roster.
There are some holes to fill in the lineup, although a number of starters return. Being hungry enough to make another title run is an intangible that can only emerge as the season hits.
2. Who emerges as quarterback Nick Ferrer's primary targets?
Seth Coate, Montay McDowell and Akeim Kelsaw have graduated after combining for 157 receptions, 2,875 yards and 38 touchdowns last season. Those three accounted for 53 percent of the team's receptions, 68 percent of its receiving yards and 73 percent of its receiving touchdowns.
Good thing the starting quarterback returns.
The returning receivers with the most experience are senior inside receiver Sean Boswell, sophomore outside receiver Rocky James and senior tight end Zach Gegner.
Among the candidates to join those three as Ferrer targets are juniors Nate Carson and Andreas Gomez-Espino, and sophomores Dan Ricksy, Duke Blackwell and Will Chrisman.
“I think we'll be even faster on the outside than we were last year, although not collectively as big and strong,” Ferrer said. “We're strong, and getting stronger, but we'll have 4.4 (seconds in the 40-yard dash) guys at every spot. It comes down to finishing plays and consistently catching the football.”
3. Will the defense live up to hype?
Most observers expect the Cougars defense to pull extra weight this fall, especially early in the season, because of the experience and high-level performers.
The top returning players include senior outside linebacker Spencer Cowherd, junior inside linebackers Piercen Harnish and Eric Dunten, junior tackle Eric Hemmelgarn, senior safety Lee Stewart and junior cornerback Wilmer Cole.
Junior linebacker Marcus Stepp is expected to play an even bigger role, along with sophomore defensive backs Blake Schumacher and Ryan Johnson and junior Stan Jackson. Others to watch include sophomore defensive end James Jamicich, junior defensive ends Jordan May and Blake Blaker and sophomore tackle Matt Swartz. Senior transfer Nathan Braster from Western Michigan is a significant newcomer.
This group can, and should, live up to the hype.
4. Who is primed for a breakout season?
Stepp, the former Bishop Dwenger standout, began to make a real impact last season and the Cougars are tweaking the defense to put him in position to be a major pass rusher this season. Hemmelgarn is a beast up front, but the Cougars will need someone to make up for the graduation of Lucas Sparks. Stepp could be the man.
On the offensive side, Ferrer will throw the ball enough to make some receiver a breakout star. The odds are in James' favor as the top target, but Boswell could see his role increase significantly with his knowledge of the offense and sure hands.
Justin Green is an outstanding running back, but who steps in to complement him? P.J. Dean is strong, but suffered a knee injury in the spring that could keep him sidelined.
5. Can any freshmen earn playing time?
The wide receiver spot is a possibility, as a number of incoming freshmen, including Dylan Hunley from East Noble and Shane McCormick from Crown Point, bring playmaking potential. It's hard to predict which players can make the jump to college production as a freshman, however. Former Bellmont linebacker Caleb Hankenson brings aggression and college size (6-foot, 214 pounds) to the mix and could earn some playing time.
It's more difficult to play as a freshman than most first-year Cougars understand. Few make it happen outside of special teams.
If the above questions turn out to be filled with positive answers, Saint Francis will have a shot at one of the most elusive feats in sports: The repeat.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at email@example.com.
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