West Chester U. football has high hopes

WEST GOSHEN – It’s been nearly a decade since the West Chester football program headed into a season with the kind of lofty expectations that are now building for the upcoming 2014 campaign.

The last time the Golden Rams received this much preseason national attention was probably leading up to the 2005 season, which came on the heels of the programs first-ever trip to the semifinals of the NCAA Division II Playoffs. Not coincidentally, WCU is fresh off a 13-2 season that featured a return trip to the Final Four.

“The last two seasons, nobody accepted losing, and consequently we flipped it,” said star linebacker Ronell “Thump’ Williams, who was a redshirt freshman in 2011, when the Rams suffered through the second of back-to-back losing seasons before righting the ship in 2012.

With 20 wins in the last two seasons, West Chester is back under veteran head coach Bill Zwaan, who is preparing for his 12th season at the helm. And the college football preview magazines have taken notice. The Rams are ranked sixth and eighth, respectively, by The Sporting News and Lindy’s Sports, with more preseason accolades expected.

“It doesn’t really mean anything on the field – we all know that, but for the kids when they look at that, they know their challenge this summer is to really push themselves hard and be ready to come back and try to reach those expectations,” Zwaan said. “I think it is a good thing.

“We want to be in this position. We want people to think of us as one of the top teams in the country. That’s what our goals are, to try to be there every year.”

West Chester attained that level once before under Zwaan, going 46-19 with five straight NCAA Playoff appearances from 2004-08. Admittedly, the program still has a way to go to reach that level of consistency, but the ’14 Rams are expected to return a dozen starters, including record-breaking quarterback Sean McCartney, stunning depth at the rest of the skilled positions, one All-American linebacker (Williams) and another (Mike Labor) who would be a superstar on another team, and one of the nation’s premier lockdown cornerbacks (Al-Hajj Shabazz).

“We have a chance to be pretty good again,” Zwaan said.

West Chester’s roster includes Kayo Bakare, a defensive end from Perkiomen Valley; as well as Ryan Pannella, a safety from Phoenixville.

“I’m sure there are people looking at us thinking we had one good year and that’s going to be it,” echoed McCartney, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA due to his injury marred 2012 campaign. “But we have a ton of players coming back. I don’t see why we can’t get back to the same level, or further, next fall.”

There are, however, some significant hurdles, including heavy graduation losses along the defensive and offensive lines, and a challenging schedule that features a brutally tough first two games, followed by the gauntlet in the PSAC East, which is shaping up as one of the nation’s most powerful divisions.

“When you look at our first two games at New Haven and at home against Mercyhurst, both are very good teams, have lots of guys coming back and they’ve always been a challenge for us,” Zwaan said. “We have to have a good preseason camp and be ready. We can’t have any hiccups early or those guys are going to beat us. For us to reach the goals and expectations of what this team can be, we can’t afford to lose a game early in the season.”

The heart of the division race begins with a Homecoming clash against Shippensburg on Oct. 18, followed by trips to Bloomsburg and East Stroudsburg on Oct. 25 and Nov. 8, respectively. Bloomsburg is 17th on The Sporting News’ Top 25 preseason poll and ESU is 24th.

“No question there is going to be at least four teams that are going to be very good football teams in our division,” Zwaan warned. “And there are others each week that are going to be tough to play as well.

“Us, Bloomsburg, Shippensburg and East Stroudsburg are all excellent teams. In the PSAC, there and eight-to-10 in that category, and four sit in the East.”

Individually, Williams was named to The Sporting News’ D2 All-American, and senior center Derek Schatz was selected to the Second Team of Lindy’s D2 All-American squad. Williams led the Rams in tackles for the third straight season last fall and was named the ECAC Defensive Player of the Year. Schatz (6-foot-3, 285) transferred from Villanova in 2011 and anchored an interior line that paved the way for former runner Rondell White to shatter nearly two dozen school records.

“(Schatz) makes all of the calls for us up front and he is a true senior leader,” Zwaan said. “It’s nice to see him get some recognition because he’s worked hard. All of our lineman look up to him and he is their captain and leader.

“And the nice thing about Rondell is that his expectations are higher than ours as a staff. We know what kind of football player he is. He will play really well, and he’s always been a good leader, but now that he is a senior captain, I think he is going step up even further.”