Muhlenberg College

Allentown, Pa.
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Monday, August 30, 2004
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Mules Kick Off Season at Home on Saturday
Here’s the big picture: The Muhlenberg football team has shared three consecutive Centennial Conference championships and earned its first two NCAA Tournament bids the last two seasons. The Mules are 33-11 since 2000 and have made four straight postseason appearances.

For the 2004 season, which begins Saturday with a home game against Kings Point, Head Coach Mike Donnelly wants to forget about the big picture and concentrate on the small picture.

“Better Every Day” is the team’s motto, and Donnelly feels that if the Mules concentrate on improving every day, the good things will be a natural result.

“We want to eliminate the pressure caused by having high expectations, which can take away from our focus on things that are really important – like getting better every day,” he said, noting that pressure from high expectations may have hurt Muhlenberg last year. The team dropped its first two games, then reeled off a seven-game winning streak before suffering a close loss to Christopher Newport in the NCAA first round to finish at 7-3.

“If we’ve done good things today, our goal is to be better tomorrow,” added Donnelly. “We’ll try to focus on the here and now, and at the end we’ll look back and see what we did.”

What the Mules, who were picked second in the CC preseason poll, see in that final picture will depend on how well they can make up for the loss of six first-team All-CC selections, a group that included three All-Americans.

Muhlenberg has established itself as one of the top defensive units in Division III the last two years, ranking in the top 15 in scoring defense both seasons. The Mules allowed only 13.7 points per game in 2003 and also ranked among the national leaders in total defense (24th), pass efficiency defense (23rd) and rushing defense (33rd).

After struggling early in the season to adapt to the new 3-4 scheme, the defense settled in to become a formidable unit. The Mules gave up just 73 points over the final seven games. The final eight weeks, they held opponents to four rushing touchdowns and a 41.7-percent completion percentage.

Muhlenberg returns seven starters on defense, including all but one of its front seven, but
Dan Walker
Walker was a big part of a defense that allowed only 93.7 rushing yards per game the last nine weeks of 2003.
all four graduated players earned All-CC honors during the careers, and one was the team’s defensive MVP and leading tackler a year ago.

The Mules have a wealth of experience up front. Senior co-captain Michael Della Pella had his best season in 2003, earning a spot on the All-CC first team after making 46 tackles from his nose guard position. Muhlenberg has two outstanding junior ends in preseason All-America Dan McCall and Tom Wargacki. McCall set a school record with 10½ sacks and totaled 15½ tackles for loss in his first season as a varsity player. Wargacki, named the Mules’ most improved defensive player, registered nine tackles for loss, including three sacks.

Strength at the linebacker position was one of the reasons for the switch to a 3-4, and once again the Mules have a solid corps, led by senior outside ’backers Dan Walker and Ryan Peer. Walker, an All-CC second-team selection, was second on the team with 69 tackles and 11½ tackles for loss, and he tied for the CC lead with three forced fumbles. Peer earned a starting job early in the season and ended up with 49 stops (fifth on the team), including six tackles for loss.

Heading the inside linebackers is junior Mark Bennett, who was Muhlenberg's third-leading tackler with 65 stops in his first season as a varsity player. Sophomore Dustin Martin, impressive in mostly a special teams role last year, will challenge to win the other inside linebacker spot.

The lone returning starter in an inexperienced secondary is junior cornerback Mike McCurley. The converted running back tied for the team lead with four interceptions and made 37 tackles last year. Junior Justin Adair, who started two games and played nickel in the rest last year, is a top contender at the other corner. The heirs apparent at the inside positions are juniors Phil Gasker (rover) and Alexander Miller (free safety). Both earned letters as outstanding special teams players last year.

Muhlenberg’s special teams had another outstanding season in 2003, blocking 12 kicks and leading the CC in punt returns and kickoff coverage. For the second year in a row, the Mules ranked among the top 30 in Division III in both punt returns (17th) and kickoff returns (23rd).

Although the team must replace its All-America kick returner and its punter, the depth of returning talent is illustrated by the fact that seven players who blocked kicks last year are back. Della Pella led Muhlenberg with four blocked kicks, and senior Jason Spencer swatted away two. Peer, the Mules’ 2003 special teams MVP, and Gasker are also among the top returnees on special teams.

The lone returning return man is McCurley, who brought back 12 kickoffs for a 21.1-yard average last year. Classmate Kyle Douglass could field kicks as well.

Senior Brian Hendershot took over kicking duties in 2003 and led the CC by making 25 of 29 extra-point attempts. He also nailed six field goals. Sophomore Ryan Sassaman is the leading candidate to handle the punting chores.

After averaging more than 30 points a game for four straight years, the Muhlenberg offense was spotty in 2003, putting up only 24.5 points per game. A revolving door at quarterback, where three different players started, and an injury to the Mules’ top running back conspired to keep the offense from finding its rhythm.

The offense faces additional challenges for the 2004 season. All three quarterbacks return, although one has moved to wide receiver, leaving the other two to battle for the starting job. The team is far less experienced at the other skill positions. Muhlenberg
offensive line
Joseph Carr (77) and Frank Santini (71) block during the Mules’ lightning-shortened scrimmage with Wilkes. The Mules’ offensive line allowed only nine sacks the last six games of the 2003 season.
scored 30 offensive touchdowns in 2003, and only three of them were by players on the 2004 roster. Not a single player who caught a touchdown pass last year is back.

The greatest asset for the offense should be an offensive line that returns virtually intact. Senior co-captains Frank Santini and Matt McGowan bookend the line from their tackle positions. Santini came back from injury to earn unanimous first-team All-CC honors in his first year as a varsity player. McGowan slides over to tackle after starting the final seven games of the 2003 season at guard.

Juniors Mike Leanch, who received All-CC honorable mention last fall, and Carl Slabicki return to their starting slots at guard and center, respectively. Junior Bryan Spencer moves from defensive tackle to fill the remaining guard spot

The line will try to open big holes for the running back position, where the team already has a big hole. The program’s all-time leading rusher and touchdown-scorer graduated, leaving seniors Mike Mrkobrad and Jason Spencer to fill in. Mrkobrad did just that last year, starting two games at tailback when the injury bug struck. He was the team’s second-leading rusher and receiver last year and leads all active players not only in career rushing yards (593), but also in career catches (50). Spencer earned his first varsity letter in 2003 and is likely to get even more carries as a senior.

Senior co-captain Nick Rosetti started the second and third games of the 2003 season under center and was just beginning to hit his stride when an injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. He threw for 516 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Tom Kelleher began 2003 as the team’s third-string quarterback but wound up starting five games, passing for a team-leading 935 yards and seven scores.

The player who began the 2003 season as the starting quarterback, Ryan Newman, is moving to wide receiver for his senior year. The move makes the quarterback position less cluttered and gives a boost to the receiver corps, which is extremely thin on experience after graduating the CC offensive player of the year. The only returning receiver with any significant varsity time is Douglass, who started all 10 games last year and caught 26 passes for a 15.8-yard average. Sophomore Chris Giannini also figures to see time at receiver.

The open spot at tight end will be a three-way tussle between sophomores Derek DiMattina, the Mules’ second tight end last year, Jonathan Hartman and Stephen Montalto. If all three progress, Muhlenberg may line up with two tight ends more often that it has in the past.

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Last updated August 30, 2004