By Jim Fenton, The Enterprise (Brockton)
BRIDGEWATER, Mass. -- The Bridgewater State University football team put together a special season in 2016.
After dropping their first two non-conference games, the Bears ran the table in the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference, going 8-0 for their first title since 2000.
Then, BSU nearly pulled off a significant upset in the opening round of the NCAA Division 3 tournament, losing in overtime to Alfred University, 33-27, a team that finished the season ranked 12th in the nation.
The 2017 Bears, who opened training camp on Friday afternoon at Swenson Field, have a tough act to follow, and there are holes to fill on offense and defense.
Quarterback Danny Higgins, who owns the school record with 6,091 passing yards, has graduated as well as four first-team All- MASCAC selections on defense.
"It's going to be interesting,″ said second-year coach Joe Verria, whose team opens at Buffalo State on Sept. 2. "We had a very good recruiting year and we've got a couple of good transfers.
"The kids who didn't play last year are pretty good, and they've gotten bigger, stronger, faster. We'll have to see what happens.″
The Bears began last season by losing to Curry College and Kean University by a combined five points.
They turned things around once the MASCAC schedule opened and clinched the crown with an emotional road win over defending champion Framingham State.
The success BSU had translated during the recruiting season as the Bears have 55 newcomers, including 40 freshmen and 15 transfers.
″(Winning the title) helped a lot,″ said Verria. "When we recruited, the kids had their (championship) rings on. Some of the kids we recruited watched the Alfred game. I think it put us back on the map a little bit.″
The offense will have a new quarterback after Higgins threw for 2,260 yards to set a school record last season. He finished with 47 career touchdown passes.
Freshman John Coates is a leading candidate to take over the position while Malik Garrett, a first-team all-conference running back, could switch back to quarterback.
"The quarterback position is definitely up in the air right now,″ said Verria. "John Coates can run, throw, do everything. He kind of jumps off the screen when you watch him.″
Alex McLaughlin, a first-team All-MASCAC running back, led BSU with 1,146 yards and scored seven touchdowns. Garrett ran for 462 yards and 11 TDs and caught 32 passes for 324 yards and four scores.
"To have that offensive nucleus to build around with them, that's huge,″ said Verria.
Transfer Nick Santavicca will add depth in the backfield.
The top returning pass catcher is Jack Lavanchy, who had 48 receptions for 553 yards and seven TDs.
Senior Travis Bassett, who had 54 catches for 648 yards and five TDs, will miss the year due to a shoulder injury and Dukens Leon (58 catches, 606 yards) has graduated.
Senior Giovanni Pimental of Brockton will be the tight end.
Left tackle Colton Schilling, a first-team All-MASCAC pick, and center Matt Adams of Brockton, who made the second team, have graduated.
The line should include sophomore Nick Spinale, who started the last four games, junior Zachary Tillson of Plymouth (11 starts) and junior Niccolas Falconeiri, a Bridgewater-Raynham graduate who started six games.
"The offense is a little bit unsettled, but I think we'll figure it out in a couple of weeks,″ said Verria.
Among those gone from the defense, which lost six starters, are All-MASCAC first-team choices Matt Halaby, an end, linebackers A.J. Pascuzzo and Stephen Jacobs and tackle Elvis Romero.
The top returning tacklers are linebacker Charles McCarthy (65 with 11.5 for a loss and three interceptions), junior linebacker Olubiyi Ojo (42 tackles) and Cameron Williamson of Easton (42 tackles, one interception, six breakups), who leads the secondary.
The Bears have two non-conference games to open the season, traveling to Buffalo State, then hosting Endicott on Sept. 9.
That is immediately followed by two major challenges to begin the MASCAC season against Framingham State and Fitchburg State.
"We're going to be tested right off the bat,″ said Verria. "The question is going to be how hungry are the kids. The whole year, our mantra has been that it's tougher to keep the championship than to win it.
"We have 55 new kids who don't know about Framingham or Mass. Maritime. We're going to have to come together. It's a matter of how much do you want it.
"It's going to be a tough road, a challenge for this new group. This league is really strong. There is a lot of parity in the league.″