The Shippensburg University football team had lofty expectations for the 2016 season, before injuries to key players and a devastating double overtime loss on homecoming to Kutztown University cost the Red Raiders a chance at a division title.
For starting tailback Cole Chiappialle and the rest of the Red Raiders, going 7-4 and falling short of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) championship game still stings.
“We were a step away last year. It stung all spring,” Chiappialle said. “We just need to get back to competing and working hard.”
That hard work is exactly what SU has brought to camp, with the same high expectations of competing with the hope that 2017 will culminate with a spot in the PSAC title, or state game.
“We have all the weapons to get there, we just have to do it,” Chiappialle said. “We have the expectation that we can do it and we just need to finish what we started last year. We can’t leave it on the table.”
The Red Raiders return 11 starters from last year’s team, including starting quarterback Ryan Zapoticky, who lost part of last season to a knee injury — but Zapoticky’s confidence and ability to forget about last season and focus on 2017 has allowed SU to flourish in camp with the senior leader under center.
“I try to wipe last season off my mind and just move on,” Zapoticky said. “Out of my five years this is probably the best camp I’ve been a part of. I think the hunger in the locker room is there right now and everyone is competing hard on a daily basis. If we can keep that up, I think it’s going to be a special year.”
The strong camp has pleased head coach Mark “Mac” Maciejewski, who is entering his seventh season at the head of the program. Maciejewski enters 2017 with a 46-22 record, and SU has never suffered a losing season under the fiery Maciejewski.
“The energy and the passion has been awesome,” Maciejewski said. “They’ve been focused and ready to go. They’re working hard on the field, in the meeting rooms and doing the right things off the field. We just want to continue to do this on a daily basis.”
While the team has set high expectations itself, Maciejewski said each day is simply about competing and continuing to progress, if the Red Raiders hope to see themselves competing for a title.
“Our goal doesn’t really change. We want to compete and play passionate and disciplined football and play a full 60 minutes,” Maciejewski said. “I want our guys to win in the classroom and socially. We’re working toward that.”
The Red Raiders are hoping to once again rely on a defense that showed an ability to close out games last year, as SU allowed just 18.7 points per game last season — its lowest total since 2004.
“We talk about finishing games all the time and being a fourth quarter team,” Maciejewski said. “We practice with that mentality. It was huge last year and we made some stops to be a good defense in the fourth quarter.”
While the team loses arguably one of the best linebackers in all of Division II football, Allen Holman, SU will rely on senior leadership from defensive back Kevin Taylor II on the defensive side of the ball. Taylor said this year’s success will come from forcing turnovers.
“That’s something we need to focus on,” Taylor said. “Last year we got a lot of turnovers and this year we’re working on getting a lot more. They can really change a game.”
With a focus on daily progression, SU will begin its season at home against American International College (AIC). The Red Raiders defeated AIC 16-9 last season, for SU’s 500th win in program history.
Maciejewski and the Red Raiders, who have had an extra week of camp this season with schedule changes, are anxious to get the season underway.
“It’s going to be great to get back to playing games again,” Maciejewski said. “We’re exciting to be back here in front of a great crowd at Seth Grove Stadium.”
SU will kickoff Sept. 2, 2017, at 1 p.m. against AIC.