By BRIAN LESTER
If there is one example from last season that is a testament to the strength of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, it was a week four matchup between Ohio Dominican and Grand Valley State.
The Lakers, the long-standing national powerhouse, were blitzed 57-14 by the Panthers in Columbus and went home looking nothing like a team capable of making a deep run in the postseason.
Grand Valley State was crushed in week four of the 2013 season, blasted 57-14 by Ohio Dominican in a road game.
The Lakers didn’t win the conference championship — that honor went to the Panthers — but it was the Lakers who marched all the way to the national semifinals, falling 27-13 to eventual national champion Northwest Missouri.
The conference is expected to be just as strong this season.
GVSU is the favorite in the North Division, receiving six first-place votes, while ODU, which earned a first-round bye before losing in the second round to West Texas A&M, is picked to win the South.
Saginaw Valley State also qualified for the postseason The Cardinals, who received a first-place vote in the league’s preseason poll despite being picked to finish third, were eliminated by the Lakers in a 40-7 opening-round loss.
Those three teams will all be in the mix for the title. So will Ferris State and Findlay. Both teams ended the season on four-game win streaks. Michigan Tech and Ashland are also potential title contenders in the conference.
How it all shakes out remains to be seen, but what is for certain is that GVSU will enter the year ranked second in the country in the preseason American Football Coaches Association poll.
ODU is No 13 in the country.
The Oilers received three votes in the national poll. Saginaw Valley State (87) Ferris State (41) and Michigan Tech (2) also received votes.
The league has become more balanced over the years and that competitive balance is expected to shine through again this season.
Below is a quick look at the teams in the GLIAC (excluding UF).
Grand Valley State
Head Coach: Matt Mitchell
2013 Record: 12-3 overall, 7-2 GLIAC
Star Power: Defensive back Deonte’ Hurst tied for the team lead in tackles last year, racking up 109, and his presence is huge for a secondary that rang up 21 interceptions last season. Hurst picked off three passes last season.
Quick Look: Talent is never in short supply at GVSU, which will take aim at the program’s sixth national championship. Heath Parling will run the offense after battling injuries most of the last two seasons. Even with the injury issues, he still threw for 2,441 yards and 27 touchdowns.Tight end Jamie Potts will be one of Parling’s top targets after leading the Lakers in receptions (54). Potts rolled up 899 receiving yards and caught 11 TD passes. The ground game will be solid with Michael Ratay back in the fold for an offense that returns nine starters. Ratay led the Lakers in rushing with 1,017 yards and 16 TDs. Defensive end Matt Mosley will help anchor the defense. He was third in tackles, finishing with 86, and also came through with five sacks.
Head Coach: Tony Annese
2013 Record: 8-3 overall, 8-2 GLIAC
Star Power: Jason Vander Lanan was a regional finalist for the Harlon Hill Award, the D-II equivalent of the Heisman, and is entering his third season as the starting quarterback for the Bulldogs. Vander Laan set a D-II record for rushing yards (1,607) by a signal caller and ran for 21 TDs while throwing for 15.
Quick Look: Not only do the Bulldogs have one of the top quarterbacks in the league, but they also have two talented running backs in Jamaal Jackson and Kitwana Clark. Jackson rushed for 396 yards and five TDs while Clark finished with 307 yards and found the end zone four times. Wide receivers Jake Lampman and Antonio Agurs will help aid the passing attack. Lampman led the Bulldogs in receiving, making 38 catches for 542 yards and five TDs. Defensive lineman Corey Stone and linebacker Justin Zimmer will pace the defense. Stone finished with 49 tackles last year. Defensive backs A.J. McEwen and A.J. Sowards will also play key roles. McEwen made 33 tackles and picked off five passes for a defense that allowed 356.5 yards per game.
Saginaw Valley State
Head Coach: Jim Collins
2013 Record: 9-3 overall, 9-1 GLIAC
Star Power: Safety Caleb Higbie will be counted on to step up for a Cardinals team that lost several key defensive players to graduation. Higbie made 46 tackles last season.
Quick Look: The offense was hit hard by graduation as SVSU lost its quarterback and top receiver in Jonathan Jennings and Jeff Janis. The Cardinals don’t have an impact player returning in the backfield either for an offense that cranked out 476.7 yards per game last season. Dillon is the top receiver back. He made 29 catches for 597 yards and five TDs. The Cardinals lack experience on defense as well, although defensive end Will Schwarz returns after leading the team in sacks. Schwarz tallied 5.5 sacks and came up with 40 tackles. Fellow defensive end Murtada Jabbie racked up 44 tackles. Major Metcalf will help pace the secondary. He finished with 56 tackles a year ago.
Head Coach: Tom Kearly
2013 Record: 6-4 overall, 6-4 GLIAC
Star Power: Quarterback Tyler Scarlett returns for his fourth season as the starter, giving the Huskies stability and experience under center. Scarlett is already one of the top quarterbacks in program history and is coming off a season where he threw for 2,552 yards and 16 TDs.
Quick Look: The Huskies are not only set at quarterback, but they have a proven player at running back as well. Charles Leffingwell rushed for 1,238 yards last season and scored seven times. Brandon Cowie is the top receiving threat after making 58 catches for 933 yards and three TDs last season. The experience on offense will be key early on as MTU plays four of its first five games on the road. Defensively, the Huskies will look to defensive lineman Nelson Wienke to help pave the way. Wienke led the Huskies in sacks (3.5) and racked up 41 tackles. Defensive back Brett Gervais also returns. He was second on the team in tackles last season, tallying 72 for a defense that gave up 363.6 yards per game during the 2013 campaign.
Head Coach: Keith Otterbein
2013 Record: 5-6 overall, 5-4 GLIAC
Star Power: Defensive lineman Zach Swaffer is expected to play a pivotal role on the defense again this season after a stellar freshman campaign. A year ago, he came through with 38 tackles and recorded eight sacks.
Quick Look: There is some uncertainty on offense as the Chargers look to find a starter at quarterback and running back, but there is no doubt about who the top receiver is for HC. Evan Bach led the Chargers last year, making 28 catches for 345 yards and three TDs. John Haley also returns at receiver while Mike Carter is back at tight end for an offense that averaged 376.7 yards per game. The Chargers have most of their experience back on the defensive side of the ball, including defensive backs Tim Moinet and Dan Pittman, and those two will help soften the blow of losing former Liberty-Benton standout Brett Pasche (119 tackles) to graduation. Moinet was fourth in tackles with 64 and Pittman was right behind him with 63. They will lead a defense allowed 413.7 yards per outing last season.
Head Coach: Paul Winters
2013 Record: 3-8 overall, 3-7 GLIAC
Star Power: Wide receiver Michael Johnson will bring experience to an offense that lost several starters to graduation. Johnson led the Warriors in receiving last season, making 33 catches for 491 yards. He also caught a TD pass and should be even more productive this year.
Quick Look: The Warriors had their run of finishing .500 or better end at six, a stretch that included a trip to the national championship game in 2011. The climb back up won’t be easy, particularly with the quarterback spot up in the air, although it helps that 14 starters return for the Warriors. Three players were vying for the job heading into camp. Desmond Martin should emerge as the go-to player in the backfield after rushing for 665 yards and five scores last season. Linebacker Nores Fradi will lead the way on defense. He is coming off a year where he finished third in tackles (61). The secondary is in good shape, especially with Gerren Duhart back in the mix. DuHart racked up 32 tackles and picked off two passes last year. While the Warriors have some questions to answer, it helps that four of their first five games are at home.
Head Coach: Chris Ostrowsky
2013 Record: 3-7 overall, 3-7 GLIAC
Star Power: Linebacker Nick Krause is once again poised to make an impact for the Wildcats. The senior standout was the team leader in tackles last season as he racked up 83.
Quick Look: Shaye Brown saw time last year at quarterback, including as a starter late in the year, and he has a chance to help turn things around for an NMU offense that averaged 352.8 yards per game. Brown played in six games and threw for 1,194 yards and seven TDs. Wyatt Jurasin gained valuable experience as well, leading the team in rushing with 545 yards and five TDs. Marcus Tucker is also back and will be key to success in the passing attack. He caught 49 passes for 674 yards and four scores. Free safety Levi Perry will be expected to play a key role on the defense after making 62 tackles last year. Trever Kuzel returns as well. The defensive end tallied 47 tackles and four sacks last year for a defense that was hit hard by graduation.
Head Coach: Pat Riepma
2013 Record: 2-9 overall, 1-8 GLIAC
Star Power: Linebacker Mike Keith is being counted on to have another big season. The junior standout led the team in tackles last season as he tallied 93.
Quick Look: Northwood is seeking its first winning season since 2009. Mitch Robinson appears to be the frontrunner at quarterback as he threw for 1,198 yards and 11 TDs in nine games under center last season. Robinson is also a threat to run while Devonda Elzy returns to lead the way at receiver. Elzy caught 43 passes for 701 yards and four TDs. Dan Richmond and Terrance Stocker also bring experience to the table at receiver. Linebacker Michael Fisher will help provide a lift to a defense that allowed nearly 500 yards (486.4) per game last season. Fisher was second on the team in tackles (76) during a solid freshman season. Cody Ellwanger will help lead the secondary after making 45 tackles last season.
Head Coach: Bill Conley
2013 Record: 10-1 overall, 9-0 GLIAC
Star Power: Mark Miller is back for his third year as the Panthers’ starting quarterback. The senior threw for 2,648 yards and 24 TDs while only throwing seven interceptions as he led the Panthers to a division title and playoff berth.
Quick Look: Running back Brandon Schoen is coming off his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. He rushed for 1,105 yards and also scored seven TDs. ODU has its top two receivers as well in Abe Johnson and Dez Stewart. Johnson made 60 catches for 657 yards and seven scores. The Panthers also return several key players for a defense that allowed only 18.1 points per game. That group includes linebackers Warren Shields and Cody Culbertson. Shields racked up 99 tackles and came through with five sacks as well last season. Two of ODU’s best defensive linemen also return in Di’Andre Harrison and Sydney Omameh. Harrison made 41 tackles and racked up eight sacks. Omameh tallied 40 tackles and five sacks.
Head Coach: Lee Owens
2013 Record: 5-5 overall, 5-4 GLIAC)
Star Power: Running back Anthony Taylor will be key to the Eagles’ success. The senior was second in the league in rushing a year ago, finishing with 1,691 yards and 14 TDs.
Quick Look: AU’s biggest concern is at quarterback as the Eagles went into camp without a sure-fire starter. Vance Settlemire, a former Findlay high standout, should help the Eagles’ offense after rushing for 380 yards and seven scores last season. Dan Piko will be the top threat in the passing attack after making 41 catches for 623 yards and five TDs. The defense will be anchored by linebacker Chris Harvey, who was tied for the team-lead in tackles (88) last season. Linebackers Phil Galaska (71) and Zach Olszewski (68) will also play key roles on a defense that allowed 23.4 points per game.
Head Coach: Mark McNellie
2013 Record: 4-7 overall, 3-6 GLIAC
Star Power: Junior running back Anthony Bilal returns after cranking out 1,542 yards and 24 TDs last season for an offense that led the league in scoring and yards per game.
Quick Look: While LEC needs to fill a void at quarterback, it isn’t lacking in talent on offense. The entire line is returns as well as three of LEC’s top receivers, including Tommy Jackson, who caught 72 passes for 937 yards and nine TDs. The key to success hinges on the defense. The Storm gave up 32 points or more nine times last year. The good news is the Storm’s top three linebackers and entire secondary are back. Linebacker Tanner Wells led the team in tackles (110). Linebacker Marcus Rogers was second in tackles (83). Defensive back DeVen Darby will head up the secondary. He made 54 tackles and picked off four passes last year.
Head Coach: Ted Karras
2013 Record: 3-8 overall, 3-6 GLIAC
Star Power: Linebacker Cam Trudell led the Cavaliers in tackles, racking up 94 a year ago. The senior will be counted on to help the defense take a step forward after it allowed 475.8 yards per game last season.
Quick Look: Paule Kempe returns at quarterback and Aaron Male will lead the way in the backfield. Kempe threw for 1,621 yards and 10 TDs while Male rushed for 498 yards and found the end zone eight times. The passing attack will be fueled by Jerald Robinson, who made 38 catches for 499 yards. He also caught seven TD passes. Darryl Gary is also back, along with Andy Schrock, who returns after being injured last year. Schrock was one of Walsh’s top threats before the injury. The Cavs, who allowed 43.5 points per outing in their last four games, will count on defensive backs Pat White and Jamaris Brown to help turn things around. White was third in tackles with 78. Brown picked off a team-best five passes.
Head Coach: Gary Goff
2013 Record: 2-9 overall, 1-8 GLIAC
Star Power: Quarterback Antonio Pipkin is one of the Dragons’ most athletic players. Pipkin, who also plays basketball, is coming off a year where he threw for 2,317 yards and 12 TDs. He also rushed for 165 yards and five scores.
Quick Look: Former McComb standout Jerry Brown will play an integral role for the Dragons after rushing for 400 yards and three TDs. Brown showed off his versatility by catching 30 passes for 236 yards and a pair of TDs for an offense that averaged 368.3 yards per outing. Marcus Beaurem and Tony Shead will be the top receiving targets. Beaurem caught 67 passes for 591 yards and three scores to pave the way last season. The defense lost seven starters, which hurts TU’s cause to take a step forward, but linebacker Terry Harper does return. He was second on the team in tackles with 87. TU allowed 449.8 yards per game a year ago.
Head Coach: Eric Hehman
2013 Record: 2-8 overall, 1-8 GLIAC
Star Power: Safety DeMarco Donaldson ranked second in the league last season in tackles. The senior racked up 119 and will look to help the Pioneers improve on a defense that allowed over 40 points per game.
Quick Look: The quarterback situation is up in the air, but the running attack will be led by Justin Davis. Davis rushed for 806 yards and seven TDs last season to pace the Pioneers, who averaged 395.5 yards per game. Jordan Phillips also returns. He was the leading receiver for MU, catching 34 passes for 560 yards and six scores. MU’s defense was hit hard by graduation. Defensive lineman Brock Lundeen is back, though, after making 39 tackles and 4.5 sacks. The Pioneers will need to find others to step up, though, after allowing 459.9 yards per game.