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Junior quarterback Chance Stewart threw for 2,546 yards and 19 touchdowns in his sophomore season. (Photo: Rachael Reynolds / Hillsdale Collegian)

After a 5-5 campaign in its final season as a member of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the Hillsdale College football team returns with revamped expectations in its debut season in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.

In a preseason coaches’ poll, the Chargers ranked second in the eight-team conference.

The Chargers begin their non-conference season on Sep. 2, when they visit Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania. Their home opener comes a week later, when they host Michigan Tech University on Sept. 9 at 1 p.m. at Frank “Muddy” Waters Stadium.

The first conference game on the schedule for the Chargers is on Homecoming, Sept. 30, against Kentucky Wesleyan College. The final seven games of the eleven-game season will all be against schools in the G-MAC.

On Oct. 14, ESPN3 will broadcast the game against the University of Findlay at “Muddy” Waters Stadium, as part of the NCAA’s Division II Showcase. This will be the first time ESPN has ever broadcasted a Hillsdale College football game.

On the field, the Chargers return 20 of their 22 starters from last season. Head coach Keith Otterbein said he expects that continuity to benefit the team.

“This is a fun group to coach. They show up, they work hard, they enjoy being around each other,” Otterbein said. “We have great leadership out of our senior group. We’ve got a bunch of guys in this leadership group that are doing the extra things in order to help themselves play at a higher level, which, in turn, helps our whole football team play at a higher level.”

The players seem to share their coach’s confidence.

“I think we’re talented enough to win the conference,” tailback Joe Reverman said.

At the same time, Reverman cautioned against looking too far ahead in the season, saying the team’s priority is always the next game on the schedule. The junior returns for his third season as the team’s primary running back after being named honorable mention all-GLIAC last season.

Junior quarterback Chance Stewart, who joined Reverman as an honorable mention all-GLIAC selection in 2016, also returns for his third season as a full-time starter.

“Coach Otter has set the expectation every year,” Stewart said. “We go in every year expecting a championship. That stuff doesn’t change at all.”

Stewart also lauded the depth of this year’s team.

“Guys from last year’s freshman class will be stepping up and playing,” he said. “For the first time, we really have depth at all of the positions. When you have that depth put in with a lot of talent, it’s exciting to see.”

As the signal caller, Stewart said he believes a healthy balance of running and passing will be the key to the Chargers’ offense this year. He also mentioned the importance of having honorable mention All-American wide receiver Trey Brock back for his junior year.

On the defensive side, Otterbein said the group has been “playing really hard” and “running to the ball” in practice, something he expects to translate well into the season.

Nevertheless, he still sees some room for improvement.

“An area that I would say we have to get better on the defensive side of the ball is putting pressure on the quarterback,” Otterbein said, “which generally is in third down situations, so our ability to get off the field on third downs becomes a critical factor for us.”

On special teams, Otterbein is relying on younger players to step up and make an impact on the field. The special teams squad will be critical to the success of both the offense and defense, since field position is important to any team’s ability to execute their game plan.

While the transition to the new conference brings a degree of unfamiliarity to the season, the Chargers said they are committed to staying focused on the day-to-day process that they hope will propel them to the top of the G-MAC.