CWU Tops Preseason Coaches' PollPosted: Updated:
SPOKANE, Wash. -- The CWU football team, ranked as high as fifth in preseason national polls in the NCAA Division II, is a unanimous choice to win the 2008 GNAC championship in the preseason coaches' poll released Tuesday.
The Wildcats, who make their return to the GNAC this fall after a two-year stint in the now-defunct North Central Conference, won three of the previous four conference championships (2002, 2004-05) in the GNAC before the league discontinued the sport following the 2005 season. Included in that NCC stint was a 10-3 overall record and appearance in the NCAA Division II national quarterfinals last year.
Central received all five first-place votes, followed by Western Oregon and Western Washington, who were unanimous picks to finish second and third, respectively. Dixie State and Humboldt State, who are both football-only members of the GNAC, round out the poll with eight and seven voting points, respectively.
First-year head coach Blaine Bennett (Whitworth, 1987), the third different Wildcat head coach in as many seasons, has a strong nucleus of returnees on both offense and defense. The offense is led by senior quarterback Mike Reilly (Kalispell, Mont./Flathead HS), a first-team All-American by D2football.com last season, and junior receiver Johnny Spevak (Edgewood, Wash./Puyallup HS). Both players, along with senior tight end Jared Bronson (Kent, Wash./Thomas Jefferson HS), were tabbed for preseason All-American honors this year by various publications. Reilly expects to challenge current NFL quarterback Jon Kitna for many of the school's remaining career passing records, trailing Kitna by 3,611 yards and 18 touchdowns for those records.
Spevak had the second-best receiving season in school history as a sophomore, totaling 1,210 yards on 92 receptions with 14 touchdowns. He was picked as a preseason Division II All-American by The Sporting News this year.
Bronson corralled 35 passes for 477 yards last season to rank as the Wildcats' third-leading receiver. He also helps bolster an offensive line that returns four starters, including fellow seniors Aaron Gilbert (Auburn, Wash./Thomas Jefferson HS), Matt Coffman (Othello, Wash.), and junior Tony Quirk (Ellensburg, Wash.).
Reilly will have his top three receivers back from last season, with senior Chris Rohrbach (Edmonds, Wash./Meadowdale HS) also returning after a 45-reception, 675-yard campaign with five touchdowns.
Carrying the ball out of the backfield will be an entirely new cast for the Wildcats, as last year's leading rusher, Johnny Lopez, completed his eligibility after a 1,230-yard season with 13 touchdowns. Reilly is the only returning player who carried the football in 2007, netting 266 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The likely candidates for Reilly to hand the ball off to are a pair of redshirt freshmen -- Anthony Stewart (Seattle, Wash./Rainier Beach HS) and Justin Leonard (Woodland, Wash.) -- or highly-touted transfer J.R. Hasty (Newcastle, Wash./Bellevue HS) from the University of Washington. Hasty totaled 50 rushing touchdowns as a senior at Bellevue High School four years ago but saw limited playing time with the Huskies. His father, former all-pro defensive back James Hasty, spent two seasons (1983-84) in a Wildcat uniform before finishing his career at Washington State. Stewart, who is the younger brother of former Husky and current New York Knicks guard Nate Robinson, turned out for the Wildcats in 2006 but left school and did not return until this past spring.
A fearsome foursome of linebackers anchors a defensive unit that will return to a 4-3 alignment after one season operating out of a 3 lineman, 4 linebacker look. Junior Buddy Wood (Chattaroy, Wash./Riverside HS), who earned all-North Central Conference honors and finished with 119 tackles last season, is the leader of that foursome, while being flanked by sophomore Adam Bighill (Montesano, Wash.), Chris James (Tacoma, Wash./Bellarmine Prep), and sophomore Anthony Le (Lacey, Wash./Timberline HS). Bighill and Le both had standout campaigns as freshmen a year ago -- each had as many as 16 tackles in a single game in 2007 - while James is back after a medical hardship season.
The Wildcat secondary is led by junior Jerome Williams (Seattle, Wash./Ballard HS) and senior Jon Rogers (North Pole, Alaska/Ben Eielson HS), who were both regular starters for a team that led the NCC in pass efficiency defense last season. Williams led CWU with six interceptions, including two in the closing minutes of the Wildcats' second-round playoff upset of Nebraska-Omaha, while Rogers was the fourth-leading tackler last season from his cornerback position. Newcomers Courtney Smith (Stockton, Calif./East Union HS) and Jordan Murchison (Oakland, Calif./Bishop O'Dowd HS) are likely to compete for the other starting cornerback position in their senior seasons. Joining Williams at safety could be any number of players, including two with significant collegiate game experience in sophomore Justin Gran (Buckley, Wash./White River HS) and senior J.R. Jamerson (Pasco, Wash.).
The defensive front may be the area of greatest concern for the defense, where just two lettermen -- senior Mitch Reffett (Moses Lake, Wash.) and sophomore Tyrell Nielsen (Woodland, Wash.) -- return. Redshirt freshmen Andrew Oney (Spanaway, Wash./Spanaway Lake HS) and Kalani Terukina (University Place, Wash./Curtis HS) are the early picks to start at an end and tackle position, respectively, although the Wildcats have 17 defensive linemen on their roster. Included among those is a pair of newcomers initially penciled in for careers at Division I schools -- Eugene Germany (Pomona, Calif.) and Antonio Hartwell (Las Vegas, Nev./Foothill HS) at Arizona State and Northern Arizona, respectively.
The special teams unit is keyed once again by third-year starter Garrett Rolsma (University Place, Wash./Curtis HS) at both kicker and punter. Rolsma was the third-leading point scorer on the Wildcats last season, totaling 82 points by making 12-of-18 field goals and 46-of-51 extra-points. As a punter, the junior averaged 35.9 yards per punt with 18 of his 58 kicks inside the opponents' 20-yard line. The return game, where Central struggled and ranked in the middle of the pack in the NCC in 2007, should be bolstered by the addition of Smith and Hasty as likely kick return candidates. Spevak may also spend some time returning punts, and Williams is a potential threat with kick-return experience.
Central Washington's schedule will feature eight Great Northwest Athletic Conference games - a home-and-home series with each of the other four conference schools - plus non-conference challenges with Mesa State (Colo.), Azusa Pacific (Calif.), and a first-ever match-up with perennial Division I-FCS power Montana. The Wildcats open Aug. 30 at Dixie State, with their home opener slated for Sept. 6 against Mesa State.