After compiling its best regular season record in five years, the Hillsdale football team has its sights set even higher in 2018. Hillsdale finished 7 – 4 and in third place in the G-MAC in 2017. According to a preseason coaches poll, the Chargers are expected to again finish third in the nine-team conference, but by a closer margin. Hillsdale even received one first-place vote.
The two teams that finished ahead of Hillsdale last season, Ohio Dominican University and the University of Findlay, are favored to lead the G-MAC again this year. The Chargers begin their season at home on Saturday at 7 p.m. against Mercyhurst University. Hillsdale defeated the Lakers in week one last year, 19 – 11.
The beginning of the regular season marks the end of a three-week summer training camp. Head coach Keith Otterbein was pleased with his team’s effort and attention to detail throughout camp.
“Kids showed up locked in. They’re really focused, really geared into what we’re trying to do,” Otterbein said. “We put a lot of information at them, and they were for the most part doing a pretty good job of assignment football and playing hard. There was a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of excitement throughout the whole camp.”
If the Chargers are able to surpass ODU and Findlay and win a conference championship in 2018, it will likely be because of their offensive firepower. Senior quarterback Chance Stewart returns for his fourth and final season. In 2017, Stewart threw for a career-high 2,695 yards and tossed 16 touchdowns. He also was valuable when using his legs, adding six more touchdowns on the ground, most of which came at the goal line.
Stewart will work with an experienced receiving corps led by senior wide receiver Trey Brock. Brock paced the team in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns in 2017, despite a slight regression in his productivity from 2016, when he was an honorable mention All-American. Brock enters the season just 113 receiving yards shy of the school record held by Buffalo Bills wide receiver Andre Holmes ‘11.
In addition to Brock, senior wide receiver Austin Sandusky provides experience and explosiveness at the slot position. After the two senior leaders, the receiving unit is deep, young, and loaded with potential. The group figures to benefit from the veteran leadership of Stewart, Brock, Sandusky, and senior tight end John Brennan.
“When you have Trey and when you have Austin Sandusky and when you have John Brennan, those are three older guys that know what to expect,” Stewart said. “So it’s really easy for the younger guys to kind of fall in and understand how things who work for us.”
Sophomore wide receivers Konnor Maloney and Alexander Giampietro are just two wideouts Stewart will have among an array of potential targets.
“It’s every quarterback’s dream to have multiple weapons like that so it’ll be really exciting,” Stewart said.
Balancing the aerial attack will be a solid running game, featuring junior running back David Graham. Graham came into his own last season, rushing for 1,050 yards and 18 touchdowns. Graham likes the direction the offense seems to be heading with the year about to begin.
“We’re solid in all phases of the game. We’re deep at wide receiver, we’re deep at running back, and we’re deep at quarterback,” Graham said. “I’d expect to see some big plays this year and a steady offense once we get it developed.”
Both Graham and Stewart will rely on a relatively untested offensive line that returns just two starters. Otterbein said the competition for the remaining three positions will continue into the beginning of the season.
“We’ve had some guys battling it out pretty good,” Otterbein said. “The young guys have done a good job of stepping up and plugging in. We’re going to rotate some guys in and see how they do in the heat of the battle to determine who, in the long run, is going to win those jobs.”
The Chargers return a defense that remains mostly intact from last season. Hillsdale shut out its opponent three separate times in 2017. Senior defensive back Wyatt Batdorff, the G-MAC’s leading tackler a year ago, leads the secondary as a team captain this season. He sees potential at every position for the Chargers on defense.
“Our secondary and linebackers are very skilled. The line has some very good players but they’re also very young,” Batdorff said. “All around, I don’t see any weak spots. I’m looking forward to our defense — I think we might even be better than last year.”
The Chargers haven’t won a conference championship since 2011, when they won the regular season GLIAC championship. Their potential suggests they could compete for a G-MAC title in 2018, but Otterbein and his players agree that it all starts with week one against Mercyhurst.
“We’re trying to just take it one game at a time. We want to try and get better at little things every day and always work hard — never take plays off,” Graham said. “We’ve got high hopes for this year, but we can’t get too ahead of ourselves. We’ve got to take care of each game.”
As for what to expect on Saturday, Stewart offered a preview.
“We’re going to score a lot of points. Football is fun when people are getting into the end zone,” Stewart said. “Come on out and watch some great football because it’s not every year we have a Trey Brock running around or a David Graham in the backfield. It’ll be fun.”