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Football season preview: 20 seniors aim to keep Cats on winning path

One of the deepest squads in recent Bates football history has the Bobcats looking up in terms of their prospects this fall. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

LEWISTON, Maine – Can they make it three in a row? 

An unusually large senior class, and a high degree of experience among the returning players in general, have the Bates College football team feeling good about their prospects as the Bobcats attempt to make it three straight seasons of .500 football or better in 2014.



Bates' football renaissance has seen the Bobcats progress from 3-5 in 2011 to 5-3 in 2012, followed by last year's 4-4 mark. The latter two seasons comprise Bates' best two-year record in 30 years, and close observers might also add that, going back to the final game of 2010, Bates is 13-12. A senior class of 20 players, the highest number in head coach Mark Harriman's 17 years at the helm, as well as a bevy of experience seen early on in many of the younger players on the roster

Between Weeks 2 and 4, Bates lost eight of its 22 starters from the first two weeks of the season, forcing experienced players like Andrew Kukesh, Owen Mahan and Gilbert Brown to switch positions, and pushing relatively untested freshmen like Nate Friesth (Munford, Tenn.), Mark Upton (Winthrop, Mass.) and Ben Coulibaly (Philadelphia, Pa.) into the starting lineup.

With Sept. 20 at NESCAC tri-champion Amherst looming as Bates' first-week matchup, here is how Bates' offense, defense and special teams are stacking up:

OFFENSE

Bates boasted the top rushing offense in the NESCAC in 2013, with 231.5 yards per game, the second straight year it resided the conference's top two. The Bobcats' de-emphasized passing game had them 10th in that category, with 114.6 yards per game. Opponents knew Bates wanted to run the ball in every game, but the Bobcats still mustered a healthy 3.8 yards-per-carry average as a team and scored 13 rushing touchdowns, tying Trinity for second in that category. 

Harriman believes the team will be more balanced this year, with his quarterbacks' experience increasing the odds they'll call a pass play. And with the graduation of All-NESCAC slotback Shawn Doherty, who may have been the fastest player Harriman has ever coached at Bates, the Bobcats may lean less on running the ball from the slot and more toward running back and quarterback.

Quarterback

Harriman has two able quarterbacks in camp who will compete for the starting job in senior Matt Cannone (Windham, N.H.) and junior Patrick Dugan (Westford, Mass.). Whoever doesn't win the job will likely see considerable playing time, too, depending on the opponent and Bates' game plan. 

Dugan won the starting job in preseason a year ago against Cannone and Nick LaSpada, who since transferred to Division II Merrimack. Dugan played well before suffering a season-ending injury during Week 2 against Tufts. Dugan proved to be a quick and agile runner — nice qualities to have as the operator of Bates' triple-option offense — gaining 79 yards on 20 carries against Trinity's vaunted defense in Week 1. 

Cannone received the majority of the quarterback snaps over the final six weeks and came on strong toward the end, completing 10-of-12 passes for 102 yards and rushing for 72 yards in Bates' victory over Bowdoin, then passing for 165 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 14 attempts in the Week 8 win at Hamilton. 

"Patrick won the job in the preseason and did a great job in the Trinity and Tufts games, and then Matt came through for the rest of the season," said Harriman. "It was a very close battle last preseason between them, and I expect it to be the same this year."

Bates' third-string QB will be junior Zach Radford (Wolfeboro, N.H.), a converted wide receiver.

Running Back

With the graduation of last season's workhorse, Ryan Curit, the starting running back job belongs to sophomore Ivan Reese (Savannah, Ga.), who stepped in admirably for Curit in his lone start against Middlebury, picking up 101 yards on 21 carries against the Panthers. At 6-feet, 230 pounds, Reese is a hard back to bring down. Incoming 5-10, 200-pound freshman Mickoy Nichol (Dennis Port, Mass.) is expected to tote the ball as well after his highly successful prep career at Avon Old Farms School.

Slotback

Following the graduation of All-NESCAC performer Shawn Doherty, Bates' corps of slotbacks are the team's thinnest in terms of game experience, with the most veteran returnees being junior Shaun Carroll (Clinton, Maine; 3 starts, 11-61 rushing, 3-26 receiving in 2013) and sophomore Mike Decina (Hopkinton, Mass.; 6-16 rushing, 5-26 receiving). Sophomore James Semmonella (Orange, Conn.), Bates' third-string running back last year, will move to slotback as well, providing explosiveness and a bigger body on the outside. Semmonella made an impressive cameo performance against Middlebury, rushing six times for 66 yards. Sophomores Tyler Janssen (Glastonbury, Conn.) and Alec Montes de Oca (Weston, Fla.) are also in the mix at slot, as are two promising freshmen, based on their productivity in high school, in Frank Williams (Brookline, Mass.) and Sean Peterson (Maynard, Mass.).

"If someone steps up and shows he's able to carry the load like Shawn Doherty did, then great, but I look at a bunch of those guys as a piece of the whole, for what we're looking for at that position," said Harriman. "They all have strengths, and not necessarily the same strength."

Wide Receiver

Bates' trio of returning receivers – junior Harrison Murphy (Whitinsville, Mass.), junior Mark Riley (Needham, Mass.) and senior captain Mike Tomaino (Gloucester, Mass.) – combined for a modest 18 receptions in 2013, but their size and talent have Harriman enthused nonetheless. The position calls for a lot of blocking duties in the triple option, and they don't come better than the 6-2, 205-pound Tomaino in that category. Meanwhile the 6-5, 230-pound Murphy and the 6-0, 190-pound Riley are both talents that defenses will have to honor on the outside.

Offensive Line

Bates' O-line figures to be one of its biggest strengths, with a strong quotient of experience and depth. Five-foot-11, 255-pound senior captain Larry Guinee (Peabody, Mass.), a starter throughout his career, returns for his third full season at center, while 6-2, 255-pound senior Owen Mahan (Camden, Maine), 6-4, 270-pound sophomore Mitch Hildreth (Needham, Mass.) and 6-3, 265-pound junior Lyle Seebeck (Chicago, Ill.) all started three or more games in 2013. Harriman is so high on 6-2, 245-pound sophomore James Fagan (Lynnfield, Mass.) that he has resolved to find Fagan playing time, and it may be as the starting left tackle. Bates also welcomes 5-11, 245-pound senior Brian Carilli (Dedham, Mass.) back; Carilli was a likely contributor in 2013 before suffering a season-ending injury. Others will also have the chance to play, including 6-2, 285-pound junior Alex Subocz (Northampton, Mass.) and 6-1, 275-pound junior Mike Holz (Boca Raton, Fla.).

"It's a great group," said Harriman, of the group he will be coaching daily. "We have a lot of guys who, depending on how they did this summer with conditioning, have the size and potential to compete. The great thing about the O Line is if you have nine of them, you can play nine of them."

DEFENSE

After recording a team-record 32 defensive takeaways in 2012, Bates dropped to the middle of the pack in that category last season, with 17 (11 interceptions, six fumble recoveries). On the whole, Bates' defense held up as a solid unit despite being ravaged by injury, finishing seventh in the league in points allowed (21.1 per game) and eighth in total defense (370.6 yards per game). Defensive coordinator Chris Kempton has the depth at defensive line, linebacker and cornerback to move into the top half of the conference in 2014.

Defensive Line

Nose tackle Joe DiPalma (Salem, N.H.) is another senior whose return from injury Bates can look forward to. DiPalma was set to play many snaps in a tackle rotation with Matt Comstock in 2013, but missed his entire junior season. "It's great to have him back," said Harriman. In DiPalma's absence and in response to multiple injuries, Friesth made two starts last season in what Harriman calls "baptism by fire," and that experience could pay off in a big way this year. 

Defensive end looks like another deep position for the Bobcats, with senior Sam Hundley (Cheshire, Conn.), junior Tucker Oniskey (Reading, Mass.), sophomore Sean Antonuccio (Boxford, Mass.) and senior Lani Eversage (Swanville, Maine). Hundley "is as steady a guy as we've had there, play in and play out," Harriman says, while Oniskey, who batted away nine passes at the line of scrimmage last season and ranked second in the NESCAC in passes defended, "has big play potential. He matured a lot, and some youthful mistakes, and I think we won't see that this year." The 6-3, 230-pound Eversage played slotback as a freshman and sophomore before missing his junior season, and is making the unusual move to edge rusher. "If he's willing to play more physically, he could take the next step and be dangerous out there," Harriman said of Eversage. "He's arguably one of the four fastest guys on the team."

Inside Linebacker

Bates looks strong again at the heart of its 3-5-3 defense, with four players boasting considerable game experience in seniors Adam Cuomo (Plymouth, Mass.), Josh Freedland (Marblehead, Mass.) and Steven Hild (West Hartford, Conn.), along with sophomore Mark Upton (Winthrop, Mass.). This was the unit hardest-hit by injury last season, with Hild the lone iron man to see extensive playing time in all eight games. Hild was third on the team with 47 tackles, while Cuomo had 40 and Freedland added 23 in addition to a team-high three sacks. Upton stepped into the void and had the look of a mainstay in Bates' lineup, posting 30 tackles in eight games, including four starts. Junior Sam Freeman (Newton, Mass.) also made an impact at ILB, with 11 tackles in eight games.

Outside Linebacker ("Down Safety")

Senior captain Gilbert Brown (Gloucester, Mass.) leads this relatively thin group at the "field position," with a well-established reputation as a defensive playmaker. Brown has started all 16 games over the past two years and made 91 tackles with 11 tackles for a loss and five interceptions. Harriman has two players penciled in on the other side as the "boundary" down safety in senior Pat Gilligan (Acton, Mass.; 7 games, 16 tackles, 2 sacks) and Coulibaly (8 games, 4 starts, 24 tackles).

Cornerback

Ideally Harriman would like to have three cornerbacks he can rely upon, but he may have even more – a great asset, given how much running is required at the position, both in games and practices. Bates returns a pair of two-year starting cornerbacks in senior Mike Kelleher (Saugus, Mass.), who was second on the team in 2013 in both tackles (54) and pass breakups (6), and junior Mike Lee (Bealeton, Va.; 26 tackles). Sophomore Trevor Lyons (South Hamilton, Mass.) "made a really good impact," despite missing four games to injury, said Harriman, and sophomore Brandon Williams (Gardner, Mass.), who "had the best offseason defensively – if he continues to develop the way he did in the offseason, that will give us four guys there who have the ability to play."

Free Safety

Senior Ryan Newson (Stanhope, N.J.) has the unenviable task of stepping into the shoes of three-time All-NESCAC safety Kukesh, but he'll be well prepared. Newson played in all eight games with three starts and tied Kukesh and Brown for the team lead in tackles for a loss (7.5), to go with 46 tackles overall and two interceptions.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Senior David Kurey (West Chester, Pa.), "as good as anyone we've had," will serve as Bates' punter for the fourth season. The NESCAC All-Academic selection ranked third in the conference in punting average, at 38.0 yards. Moreover, "I don't think the general public realizes the positive things he's done pinning somebody deep or getting us out of a hole," said Harriman. Kurey is also able to handle placekicking duties if the need arises, but three new kickers dot Bates' roster, including freshmen Grant DeWald (Duxbury, Mass.) and Drew Korn (Stow, Mass.). Most intriguing, perhaps, is junior Zach Shabman (Scarsdale, N.Y.), the 6-2, 205-pound former Bates goalkeeper whose soccer career was cut short by injury. "Zach worked with us in the whole offseason, and has a very strong leg. It's obviously a big transition, so it will be interesting to see what happens," said Harriman.

OUTLOOK

Gone to graduation are many of the standouts from the 2013 season, including all three all-conference selections. But in their wake is possibly the deepest team Harriman has ever led onto Garcelon Field. "I'm excited. This is a great group," Harriman said. "The work ethic of these guys — I mean, I think the guys here have always had a pretty good work ethic — but this group has been exceptional. Having such a large senior class is something that's really hard to quantify that, but it's just a huge bonus, when you have seniors at virtually every position, at practice."