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Football Season Preview: Bates looks to make a leap forward

Senior Shaun Carroll and the rest of Bates' corps of slotbacks will be counted upon to make plays and keep defenses on their heels in the 2015 season. (File photo by Russ Dillingham for Bates College) 

LEWISTON, Maine -- With its best three-year run since the early 1980s in the books -- 13-11 in that time span -- the Bates football team hopes to take its recent momentum up a level for the 2015 season, which begins Saturday at Garcelon Field against defending NESCAC champion Amherst.

"We've been 4-4 for a couple of years, and we're hoping to get over that hump, get to 5-3, 6-2, steal some games from some of the top teams," said junior linebacker Mark Upton (Winthrop, Mass.), one of two returning First Team All-NESCAC selections along with senior wide receiver Mark Riley (Needham, Mass.), in a recent interview with the Boston Globe.

The Bobcats have claimed two of the past three CBB (Colby-Bates-Bowdoin) titles outright, and have at least a share of four of the past six in the CBB series. The Portland Press Herald's CBB preview noticed that Bates has "enjoyed the most success of the three schools recently."

No opponent can be penciled in as a win, certainly, but if Bates is to not only maintain but improve upon its recent performance, it may require beating an opponent it hasn't beaten in at least nine years, such as Amherst, Middlebury or Wesleyan. With all three of those opponents occupying the first five weeks of the season, Bates hope to ring up an upset win or two. Said head coach Mark Harriman to the Press Herald, "I think we've got a great group this year. We'll see where we are Saturday."

One new wrinkle to the team this year is the addition of three recent alumni to the coaching staff. Brett McAllister '12 returns to coach the defensive line, while former captain Shawn Doherty '14 leads the slotbacks and 2014 captain Mike Tomaino '15 is coaching cornerbacks. In another wrinkle, Bates will field "game captains" this season, rather than naming captains for the entire season. Bates' game captains for Week 1 against Amherst are seniors Shaun Carroll (Clinton, Maine) and Justin Haley (Southport, Conn.).

Here's a look at the 2015 Bobcats, unit by unit:

OFFENSE

Quarterback: Senior Patrick Dugan (Westford, Mass.) earned the starting quarterback job two years ago, suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2, and lost the starting job to now-graduated Matt Cannone, the team offensive MVP last season. Dugan also suffered a season-ending injury in limited action last season. But Harriman says that Dugan has looked "terrific" in preseason practices and has the ability to be "in my opinion, the best option quarterback we've had to run this offense. Eeryboyd's got their strengths and weaknesses, and Pat knows what his are, and he's working hard at some of the things he's got to do, but just as an athlete, he can be exciting." This proving true would go a long way in advancing Bates' fortunes. 

Backing up Dugan are a pair of freshmen in 5-foot-11, 180-pound Tyler Baum (Bernardsville, N.J.) and 6-1, 190-pound Sandy Plashkes (Del Mar, Calif.). "They're both very good athletes, and we're excited to have them both in the program," said Harriman.

Running Back: Junior bruiser Ivan Reese (Savannah, Ga.; 70 rushes, 191 yards, 1 TD) remains the starting running back, with smaller and quicker junior Ryan Spillane (Medfield, Mass.; 19 rushes, 83 yards) also likely to be featured on some possessions. First-year Peter Boyer (Dover-Foxcroft, Maine), who combines some characteristics of both Reese and Spillane, may get some carries as well.

Slotback: Perhaps Bates' deepest and most potent unit on the field. Senior Shaun Carroll (Clinton, Maine; 281 rushing yards, 3 TDs; 96 receiving yards, 1 TD), sophomore Frank Williams (Brookline, Mass.; ) sophomore Mickoy Nichol (Dennis Port, Mass.), junior Tyler Janssen (Glastonbury, Conn.) and sophomore Sean Peterson (Maynard, Mass.) should all have their moments to shine this season, if all goes well. 

Wide Receiver: Riley is a special talent, with excellent ability to gain separation from defensive backs, excellent hands and good size and speed. Starting opposite Riley for Week 1 is senior former defensive lineman and slotback Lani Eversage (Fairfield, Iowa), to whom Bates will likely look to be a key blocker on the outside. Senior Mike Decina (Hopkinton, Mass.) leads Bates' reserve receivers that includes sophomores Brian Daly (Marblehead, Mass.) and Max Petrie (Madison, Conn.).

Offensive Line: A good amount of experience and talent, but a good deal of change as well. Junior Mitch Hildreth (Needham, Mass.) moves from left tackle to right tackle, while experienced junior Will Barstow (Amherst, Mass.) assumes the starting left tackle spot. Senior Lyle Seebeck (Chicago, Ill.) will start for third straight year at left guard. Junior James Fagan (Lynnfield, Mass.), the team's right guard last year, replaces graduated four-year starting center Larry Guinee as the team's snapper. Senior Mike Holz (Boca Raton, Fla.) will make his first career start Saturday at right guard. Other players in Bates' O-line mix include junior Kentavius Dumas (Atlanta, Ga.) and sophomores Sean Lovett (Groveland, Mass.), Dylan Rasch (Cumberland, Maine), Gil Connolly (Wilmington, Del.) and Mike Cronin (Quincy, Mass.).

DEFENSE

Only three players who started at least half of the games in 2014 return to Bates' defense, but that statistic may be misleading, considering the considerable experience level of players such as junior outside linebacker Ben Coulibaly (Philadelphia, Pa.), junior defensive end Sean Antonuccio (Boxford, Mass.) and junior cornerback Brandon Williams (Gardner, Mass.). 

Defensive Line: Antonuccio and senior Tucker Oniskey (Reading, Mass.) give Bates a pair of experienced and athletic starting defensive ends, while sophomore Jack Maritz (St. Louis, Mo.) has the talent to make a leap forward at end. Physical sophomore Collin Richardson (Kensington, N.H.) will make his first start in Week 1 as Bates' defensive tackle. Other players rotating in on the D-line include senior Justin Haley (Southport, Conn.), junior Andrew Segal (Glencoe, Ill.), perhaps some of a group of freshmen that is both numerous and large.

Inside Linebacker: Upton, as good an inside linebacker as Bates has had in Harriman's 17-year tenure, will be seen flying all over the field on Saturday. He'll be flanked on the inside by first-time starters in senior Sam Freeman (Newton, Mass.) and junior Sam Francis (Newburyport, Mass.). Sophomore newcomer Max Breschi (Carlisle, Pa.), a lacrosse team member, an outstanding high school player, will definitely be included in the mix, along with possibilities such as senior Paul Bosco (Concord, Mass.), junior Jake Flaherty (Andover, Mass.), junior Conor Regan (Milton, Mass.) and sophomore Luke MacDonald (Norwell, Mass.).

Outside Linebacker: Bates needs Coulibaly to continue his playmaking ways, which have netted the team 48 tackles, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries over 14 games in two years. Opposite him, sliding up from his backup safety spot a year ago, is sophomore Andrew Jenkelunas (Rocky Hill, Conn.), who saw action in four games as a safety in 2014.

Defensive Backs: Upton is the clear standout on Bates' defense, but  junior Trevor Lyons (Hamilton, Mass.; 27 tackles, 2 INT, 4 BrUp in six games) may not be far off, either. Thus Harriman's move to switch Lyons from cornerback to the all-important free safety position, making the best use of his outstanding instincts and athleticism. "Trevor is a very good corner, but there are ways [for the opponent] to go away from a corner," Harriman says. "We've had guys who have been very successful at free safety for us, and made a huge impact on our defense, and he's that type of guy." 

Junior Brandon Williams (Gardner, Mass.), who made 22 tackles in seven games last season, becomes a full-time starter at cornerback. First-year Coy Candelario (Haverhill, Mass.) is the lone freshman starter on either side of the ball for Bates. Also expected to be worked in are senior Chris Madden (Lewiston, Maine) and first-years Arthur Churchwell (Newton, Mass.) and Kevin Claflin (Ashland, Mass.).

SPECIAL TEAMS

Sophomore Grant DeWald (Duxbury, Mass.) assumed Bates' starting kicker position in 2014 and didn't miss a kick in his five games, going 2-for-2 on field goals and 9-for-9 on extra points. First-year Justin Foley (Lynnfield, Mass.) steps into the starting punter's job, with sophomore wide receiver Brian Daly (Marblehead, Mass.) backing him up. MacDonald is the team's long snapper. Lyons is likely to return punts for the Bobcats, while on kickoff returns the team will likely move away from the Coulibaly/Eversage tandem of a year ago and hand the job to younger players, likely from the slotbacks group.

While admitting that Bates is "thin at certain key positions in terms of experience," particularly on defense, the team has had success in the past with rotating in young players to play roles, especially on the defensive side. Harriman cites the example of the Class of 2015 linebackers, such as Gilbert Brown, Adam Cuomo, Josh Freedland, Pat Gilligan and Steven Hild, all of whom played increased roles as their freshman seasons progressed in 2011.

"I feel good about this group," said the head coach. "Our overall athleticism is good, but with the teams we play early in our schedule, we will need some young guys in certain positions to step up and help us out. I don't think we'll lose a step physically; I think we're as fast or faster than we've been (in recent years)."