By Jim Fenton, The Enterprise (Brockton)
BRIDGEWATER, Mass. -- The Bridgewater State University football team experienced a rare occurrence in the 2017 season.
For only the third time in 30 years, the Bears finished with a losing record, going 2-8, including a 2-6 mark in the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference.
One season after winning its first MASCAC championship since 2000, Bridgewater State was hit hard by graduation and managed victories over only Westfield State and UMass-Dartmouth in what was a long autumn.
“It was tough on everybody,” said head coach Joe Verria. “I think human nature is once you win a championship, you become a little complacent. You haven’t won something in a long time, you win it and you lose a lot of good football players and you think you’re prepared and think you can do the same thing you did the previous year.
“They got a life lesson that you can’t rest on your laurels.”
Verria, now in his third season, has been impressed by what he’s seen since the difficult ’17 season ended, with the returning players committing themselves to getting back to the winning ways.
“From the attitude that we’ve seen in the offseason, the hard work and dedication, it’s showing that this team is becoming more well-prepared,” said Verria, who opened training camp Aug. 10 in preparation for a Sept. 1 opener at home against Buffalo State.
“Everybody’s very excited. They’ve been working very hard since the season ended. Kids did an unbelievable job in voluntary offseason workouts. Spring ball was probably one of the best we’ve ever had here. The kids are all very focused.
“They’re very motivated. Obviously you lose eight games, that’s enough said. They lost close games, but it doesn’t matter. They’ve got something to prove.”
The Bears dropped their first four games by a total of 10 points, including the first two by one point, to fall into an immediate hole.
They struggled with injuries throughout the season and could never get any consistency going.
Bridgewater State should be bolstered by the return of players who were sidelined for all or parts of last season.
Junior quarterback Stefano D’Emilia of Bridgewater, who became the starter just before the midway point a year ago, returns after throwing for 1,694 yards and 13 touchdowns. Freshman Brad Thiltgen of Georgia will provide depth at the position.
One of BSU’s strong points will be at wide receiver, where Jack Lavanchy, an All-New England selection, returns after catching 80 passes for 1,193 yards and nine touchdowns.
“He had a tremendous year and worked very hard in the offseason,” said Verria.
Travis Bassett, who missed last season with an injury, is back after making 94 catches for 1,423 yards and 13 touchdowns in his first two years. The Bears also have transfers Chris Easter (Cabrillo College) and the 6-foot-4 T.J. Hairston (Ferris State) at wide receiver.
“We’re pretty strong there,” said Verria. “We missed Travis a lot. Now it’s going to be tough for a team to try to double cover one of those guys.”
Running back Alex McLaughlin (3,333 career yards) has graduated, so BSU will go with Nick Santavicca and Aidan Silva plus Jeremy Soule of Middleboro, David Coakley and Kerwin Smith.
“It’s almost like running back by committee vs. Alex predominantly carrying the load,” said Verria. “It’s not one person, it’s many kids now.”
The offensive line, which dealt with several injuries a year ago, features tackles Niccolas Falconeiri of Middleboro, a Bridgewater-Raynham graduate, and Zachary Tillson; guards Austin White and Nicholas Spinale; and center Michael Casey. The tight ends are Joseph Leanos, Dean Vacca of Brockton and Brian Burns.
There is speed and experience on defense, and the line includes ends Chris Gemayel and Rhondell Teesdale and tackles Maxwell Kroll (transfer from Central Connecticut) and Matt Willis of Raynham with Mark Wilson (another Central Connecticut transfer), Kyle Dance and Juan Gonzalez in the secondary.
The linebacker corps is young with newcomers Steven Silvia, Ryan Guire and Michael Rosa.
“I think the defense is going to be pretty good because we have a lot of speed,” said Verria. “We have good experience in the secondary and that will help.”
Bridgewater State will play five of its 10 games in a busy September and opens the MASCAC schedule Sept. 15 at Framingham State University.
The Bears are looking to wipe away the sour taste of a year ago.
“Going into the winter and the spring, I think that’s when everything started to change,” said D’Emilia. “We saw what happened and we realized what we have to do to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. That was our big thing. We all got to work right away.”