The Bethany College football program continues to grow under third-year coach Tim Weaver, as the installation of new field turf has charged the Presidents' Athletic Conference (PAC) program entering the season.
''Any kind of progress is exciting and a project like this is the best kind,'' said Weaver, whose teams have broken or tied 20 school records in his two-year tenure. ''Our day-to-day operations will be helped tremendously. We won't have to worry about the condition of the practice field, we can stay out under the lights for practice late in the season when daylight ends quicker and we can practice on the same surface we'll play most of our games on as well.''
Walking into a broken program in December of 2006, Weaver knew his work was cut out for him and had a plan set in place to turn it around.
''We are right on schedule as to where we wanted to be and have hit all our progress landmarks,'' Weaver said. ''We've grown from about 80 players in the program to nearly 110 this fall. We saw a significant increase in wins the first year, then saw major statistical improvements during the second year. The gap between us and the top teams in the league was so considerable when we arrived, we couldn't be too discouraged when we lost. Now we feel we've closed that gap and the next step is to beat those teams.''
One of the other biggest changes in the Bison's offensive scheme this season will come with the loss of quarterback Milton Joyner to graduation. Hoping to fill the shoes of the school-record holder in total yards will be sophomore Dan Pegg. Hailing from Uniontown, Pa., the sophomore lacks experience, as he completed 5 of 6 for 47 yards in the 2007 season finale.
As Pegg is the only returning quarterback, he will be challenged by some talented freshmen during camp.
Sept. 6: at Otterbein1:30 p.m.
Sept. 13: Kentucky Christian1 p.m.
Sept. 20: at Grove City7 p.m.
Oct. 4: Thomas More2 p.m.
Oct. 11: at Thiel1:30 p.m.
Oct. 18: at Westminster1:30 p.m.
Oct. 25: vs. Waynesburg1 p.m.
Nov. 1: Geneva1 p.m.
Nov. 8: at W&J1:30 p.m.
Nov. 15: Saint Vincent1 p.m.
Win 6, Lose 4
''We are excited about Pegg,'' Weaver said. ''He battled injuries early on last season, but came on at the end of the year and followed that up with a good spring.''
Weaver's veterans will be seen mostly in the backfield as the Bison's ground production produced 185 yards a game last season. Sophomore tailback Marcus Santini will be the Bison's go-to back, accounting for 473 yards on 78 touches last season and scoring five touchdowns. The battle for Santini's backup will take place during camp as well as who will fit best at fullback.
Bethany's receiving unit will include junior Matt Cruse, who pulled down 52 catches for 763 yards and a school record-tying nine scores last season. Complementing Cruse is Taylor McNeil. The senior speedster matched Cruse in receptions for 711 yards and five scores, while also amassing more than 1,450 all-purpose yards.
Topping these two talented athletes will be a challenge, but former Bishop Donahue standout Clint Wilson, as well as Matt Dahle and Randy Rankin will be in the mix of finding playing time within the receiving corps.
''Wide receiver is definitely a position of strength,'' Weaver said. ''We feel we may have the two best in the conference in Cruse and McNeil.
''Our next three options in Wilson, Dahle and Rankin are talented, tough kids who we like.''
Bethany returns four of its five offensive linemen with first-team All-PAC guard Brian Liptock and honorable mention tackle Chad Sedelacek anchoring. Other returning starters include Chris Bailey and Bob Rovanik. Bailey is a two-year returning starter at center while Rovanik started six contests last season.
On the defensive side of the ball, Weaver is expecting improvement as the Bison held teams to 14 or less points in 2007, but still only managed a 4-6 record (2-4 PAC).
''We have to play better up front, and we're looking to guys like (Chris) Boland and (Brad) Ragghianti for leadership,'' Weaver said. ''We have big, talented guys who need to be more productive and consistent.
''Their production dropped from one year to the next and we need them to step up to that previous level.''
Another big change will come at the linebacker position. With a lack of experience, Weaver believes the spot is open for anyone to take during camp.
The defensive backfield will return three starters and a fourth who saw a considerable amount of time. Nelson Mitzen was second team All-PAC after also leading Bethany with two interceptions.
At corners, Brandon Zeman and Michael Salters are expected to be in starting roles. Zeman was honorable mention All-PAC with 35 tackles despite missing four games to injury, while Salters is back for his third season as a starter.
''If we want to continue to make strides as a program, we have to improve defensively,'' Weaver said. ''This is the year for us to make significant improvements, especially against the run.
''Offensively, whomever that quarterback is, we have to get him ready to play and put him in situations where he can succeed.''