When the 2019 season kicks off, the Shippensburg University football team will look to put together a winning season for the ninth consecutive year under coach Mark “Mac” Maciejewski.
But, the Red Raiders will also have their thoughts set on something bigger than that: a return to the playoffs.
After a 10-1 2017 regular season that earned the Red Raiders a spot in the NCAA Division II Playoffs, SU took a step back in 2018. A regular season record of 6-5 extended Shippensburg’s run of consecutive winning seasons, but left them on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.
Expectations have been tempered heading into the Red Raiders’ 2019 campaign, as SU was recently voted fourth in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Eastern Division in the annual preseason coaches’ poll. The poll is taken by the head coaches of all 16 PSAC football schools.
Shippensburg is slated behind West Chester University, Shepherd University and Kutztown University in the poll, each of whom they will play in October this season.
The Red Raiders are set to bring back an ample amount of talent from an offensive unit that ranked fourth in the PSAC in points per game in 2018.
The high-octane offense thrives through the air, as its 142 passing first downs ranked second in the PSAC behind only Slippery Rock University.
The Red Raiders also excelled on third and fourth down. Their 39% conversion rate on third down ranked fifth in the PSAC, while their 62% conversion rate on fourth down led the conference by a wide margin.
Their success starts with reigning PSAC East Freshman of the Year Brycen Mussina. The redshirt-sophomore quarterback exceeded all expectations in 2018, totaling 3,376 passing yards and 32 passing touchdowns. Each of those marks led the conference by a wide margin and rank third-best in the history of SU football.
The primary beneficiary of Mussina’s passing prowess is set to be redshirt-senior wide receiver Josh Gontarek, the reigning PSAC East Offensive Player of the year. Gontarek racked up 74 receptions for 1,097 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018. All three marks were among the top two performances in the conference.
Gontarek and redshirt-junior wide receiver Winston Eubanks – who totaled 755 receiving yards of his own last season – were each recognized as First-Team All-PSAC in 2018 and appear primed to lead a dominant aerial assault in 2019.
The Red Raider defense has more question marks, however, as the unit finished 10th in the conference in points allowed per game in 2018. Shippensburg also lost a trio of defensive leaders to graduation in Richard Nase, Dakota Thompson and Tyler Emge.
Thompson and Emge were All-PSAC Eastern Division First Team honorees in 2018, and Nase earned Second Team recognition. Additionally, Nase was a four-time All-PSAC team qualifier.
The departing seniors certainly leave behind significant holes to fill. But if any coach can handle such a task, it’s Maciejewski. A former Red Raider himself, the defensive-minded head coach has faced similar obstacles en route to eight consecutive winning seasons.
The Red Raiders’ first step towards another winning season – and a playoff berth, perhaps – comes at the season opener on Saturday, September 7 at 1 p.m. at SU Student Association Field at Seth Grove Stadium.