NEW WILMINGTON, Pa. (WC Sports Information) – The Westminster College football team, under the guidance of fifth-year Head Coach Scott Benzel, returns 13 starters and 40 letterwinners from last year. The Titans, who accumulated their third-straight winning season, finished 7-3 overall and 6-2 in Presidents’ Athletic Conference (PAC) play in 2017.
“Last year, in some ways, was a really good year for us,” said Benzel. “Talent wise we were as good as anybody in our conference, if not the top 15 team in the country. Losing three games to teams who had a combined 30-0 record was a unique experience. I looked at it with our coaches and players like we lost three playoff games. Unfortunately, every year is different and you have to reload and refocus on what our expectations are. This year, we lost a really good senior class that had done a lot of great things for us. Our goal is to just get better every week, which I know is a cliché, but particularly with this group. We are going to find some new starters and we just got to keep getting better and improve and hopefully by the end of the year, we have a chance to play in a game that may decide a PAC championship.”
Benzel, who took over the program at the start of the 2014 season, has compiled a 28-14 record for a winning percentage of .667. Benzel’s winning percentage ranks fourth in school history, only behind College Football Hall of Famers Joe Fusco (.814), Harold E. Burry (.794) and Titan Sports Hall of Famer B. Eugene Nicholson (.714). Benzel has led the Titans to a 22-10 (.688) record in the PAC and has coached Westminster to a pair of Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) James Lynah Bowl victories (2015 and 2016).
Among the offensive returners are senior wide receiver Bryson Paulinellie (DuBois, PA / Dubois Area) and junior wide receiver Connor Cox (Ridge, MD / Leonardtown), who both earned All-PAC Honorable Mention accolades in 2017. Paulinellie and Cox each totaled team-highs in catches (24) and touchdowns (3). Cox registered a team-high 338 receiving yards, while Paulinellie was right behind him with 306. Also returning is senior wide receiver Jaevon Hardy (Waldorf, MD / North Point), whose season ended with an injury during the first game of the 2017 campaign. Hardy, who is also an All-American in the 100 meters for the Titan Track & Field team, led all receivers with four touchdowns during the 2016 season. Junior right guard Brady Hogue (Sharpsville, PA / Sharpsville), along with sophomore left tackle Cameron Mika (Apollo, PA / Kiski Area) round out the returning offensive starters.
“We lost Paul [Columbo] and Dom [McKinley] our 1-A and 1-B rushing attack, so our offense might have to shape into a different type of an attack,” Benzel said. “We have been very consistent running the football the past three years with those guys and we averaged over 210 yards a game which is a different style of offense. With our quarterback situation, we are really going to try go to whatever our quarterback’s strength is going to be. We have a couple of guys that we are fortunate enough to have transferred in who we are excited about. I expect us to be a little more balanced on offense than we have been in the past. The game starts up front and I feel good about our offensive line, even though we lost a couple guys there, but I think in the end, our success on offense is going to be dictated on how we do with our guys up front. I am looking for us offensively to be different in a sense of how we attack teams, but still be consistent like we have been in the past.”
On the defensive side, senior safety Miguel Luis (Hollywood, FL/Mater Academy) returns after an impressive 2017 campaign that earned him All-PAC First Team Honors. Luis finished 12th in the conference among all defensive positions in tackles per game with 7.4; that same number was also good for third among defensive backs. Luis led the Titans last season with 74 total tackles (44 solo, 30 assisted), while also leading the Titans with two fumble recoveries and tied for first in forced fumbles with two. Senior linebacker Bill Madeja (Pittsburgh, PA / Brentwood), who earned All-PAC Honorable Mention accolades last season, looks to build off his 2017 season that saw him finish 28th among all defensive positions (10th among defensive backs) in the PAC with 6.2 tackles per game and tied for 17th in tackles for loss (9.0). Rounding out the defensive returning starters are seniors defensive tackle John Fitzgerald (Youngstown, OH / Youngstown East) and safety Travis Lauster (Prospect, PA / Slippery Rock), along with junior cornerback Aaron Pierce (Fort Lauderdale, FL / Hollywood).
“We had some really heavy impact players that started for us the past three to four years, guys like Todd [Jeter], CJ [Armstrong], Bobby [Noble], and Tyler [Beatrice], all who we’re going to have to replace,” said Benzel. “Our defensive line has to be stout in there in order for us to be successful, so that’s my first area of emphasis as we are going to have some new players in there particularly at defensive end. I feel confident about our back end and our linebacking corps. It was easy in the past to have Todd cover the best receiver and he took them away so we could concentrate on the other ten [players], but that’s not going to be the case this year so we are going to have to be a little sounder [as a team] technique wise and I think we can do that. I am excited about Miguel back there and, in my opinion, he is one of the best players in the conference because he is so versatile and an active defender. Keeping Miguel healthy and keeping him in the leadership position will stabilize our defense.”
On special teams, Westminster returns All-PAC Honorable Mention kicker John Cybak (Massillon, OH / Tuslaw) who tied Westminster’s school record for longest field goal with a 47-yarder against Washington and Jefferson last season. Cybak also broke the single-season school record for point-after-touchdowns in a season with 37. Paulinellie returns as the punt returner, a position he has flourished in during his time at Westminster as he currently holds the school record for career punt return average (14.7).
“I think we have an overall better depth and a more competitive freshman class,” added Benzel. “In the past, you see five or six guys immediately step up and I think this group is really competitive from position A to position D. I think we have some guys who have come from winning programs. It’s also a group that comes from a lot of different areas. By large, it’s a freshmen class that should carry us and this is a group who will play [13-time National Champion] Mount Union their junior and senior years (2020, 2021), so it’s a group that is going to have to be good.”
Westminster opens the season with three-straight road contests, including the season opener against 2017 NCAA Division III playoff qualifier Wittenberg University on September 1 (1 p.m.). The Titans’ first home contest comes against Bethany College on Saturday, September 22 (1 p.m.), followed by a home game against last year’s NCAA DIII playoff qualifier and PAC Co-Champion Case Western Reserve University on Saturday, September 29 under the lights at 7 p.m. October 13 features the Titans hosting Thiel College for their annual homecoming game at 1 p.m., followed by 2017 NCAA DIII playoff qualifier and PAC Co-Champion Washington and Jefferson College paying a visit to Harold Burry Stadium on October 20 (1 p.m.). For the full schedule, visit online at athletics.westminster.edu/.