After a 10-win season that included a conference championship and a berth in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Division II Playoffs, the Hillsdale College Chargers are favored to repeat in 2019 as champions of the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.
A poll conducted among the eight head coaches in the G-MAC yielded six first-place votes for Hillsdale, and two first-place votes for the University of Findlay. Findlay finished the 2018 season in a three-way tie for second place with a 6 – 2 conference record. The Chargers were a perfect 8 – 0 in the G-MAC last year.
Ohio Dominican University and Tiffin University shared second place in 2018 with Findlay, and finished second and fourth overall in the preseason poll, respectively.
Hillsdale also enters the season in the American Football Coaches Association national rankings at No. 19 in Division II. Head coach Keith Otterbein, who was named G-MAC Coach of the Year last season, said that although the team acknowledges the recognition and expectations placed upon it before the year begins, it doesn’t affect how the Chargers will prepare to play from week to week.
“Our expectations were the same wherever they picked us. It really doesn’t matter,” Otterbein said. “Our expectations each week are to play one down at a time and play hard. If we do what we’re supposed to do, winning takes care of itself.”
A hallmark of Hillsdale’s 10 – 3 championship team last year was its ability to channel its focus on the next snap, the next play, and the next down instead of getting caught up in the wider context of a particular game or the season as a whole.
“If we have our own focus and play with great effort and passion, good things happen,” Otterbein said. “We try not to get distracted; don’t spend time patting ourselves on the back for things we’ve done in the past. Everything we get this year we’re gonna earn. Nothing is given.”
Entering training camp this summer, the biggest question for the Chargers was who would be the team’s starting quarterback in 2019. Gone is Chance Stewart, who started 41 games in the past four seasons as the team’s signal-caller.
Stewart threw for a career-high 38 touchdowns and 3,588 yards in his senior season, and was named the G-MAC’s Player of the Year in 2018. His favorite target in the passing game was Trey Brock, who in his senior season broke program records for receptions, receiving touchdowns, and receiving yards.
Without the historic combination of Stewart and Brock, the starting quarterback position was wide open as camp began. Otterbein said he was pleased with the level of competition, and ultimately redshirt freshman Luke Keller emerged as the choice to lead the offense. Keller will take his first snap in a college football game on Sept. 7 when the Chargers open their season hosting Michigan Tech University.
“I came into camp focused on competing, focusing on doing what’s best for the team, doing my job, letting things fall into place,” Keller said. “I knew it was gonna be hard work and wasn’t gonna come easy. It was good competition; everybody was battling. There was a lot of support from teammates.”
Keller attended Guerin Catholic High School in Noblesville, Indiana, where he was named the team’s Offensive Player of the Year in his senior season and earned Second-Team All-County honors. Keller describes himself as a “pro-style quarterback” who will throw from the pocket and rely on the mental aspect of the game to read defenses and execute accordingly.
Although Keller won’t have Brock to target in the passing game, the offense returns multiple playmakers in the air and on the ground. Senior running back David Graham will get the bulk of the carries in the running game. Graham has rushed for 34 touchdowns and nearly 2,000 yards in his last two seasons as the team’s starting running back.
Among the wide receivers, junior K.J. Maloney figures to be the top target. Maloney was second behind Brock on the team in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns in 2018. Sophomore wide receiver Alec Foos will take on an increased role in the passing game after playing in all 13 games last year.
“We have a lot of playmakers on our side of the ball; a lot of returning players that have had a big impact on the team and won a G-MAC championship last year,” Keller said. “I know I’ve got people up front and in the skill positions who have been there before. We have a lot of key players coming back.”
Defensively, Hillsdale led the conference in points allowed per game (19.6) and interceptions (18) in 2018. Despite losing key players like defensive back Wyatt Batdorff, defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg, and linebacker Jay Rose, Otterbein believes the defense should be able to replicate its success from a year ago.
“You lose some impact guys, but the same is the case on offense,” Otterbein said. “The opportunity to step up collectively and play at a high level is there despite losing some individual talent.”
Otterbein said he’s been pleased with the defense’s work during training camp at flying to the ball and limiting big plays, which were two keys to the unit’s success in 2018.
“I like our speed. The last couple of years, one of the differences to elevate our productivity has been in the secondary having a few more guys that can run. We’ve got some guys that can play in space,” Otterbein said. “They’re playing aggressively. We’re able to stand up and not give up big chunks. If we take care of the ball and get it back with our defense, that’ll be critical to our overall success.”
The Chargers begin the 2019 season at home on Saturday, Sept. 7, when they host Michigan Tech University for a 1 p.m. kickoff. The Huskies went 4 – 6 in 2018, but defeated Hillsdale early in the season, 31 – 30, in a double overtime affair in the Upper Peninsula. The Chargers rattled off eight consecutive conference wins after that deflating loss.
In week two, Hillsdale travels to Indiana to play the University of Indianapolis, ranked No. 16 in the AFCA preseason poll after going 10 – 2 and also clinching a berth in round two of the Division II playoffs in 2018. The Greyhounds defeated the Chargers in Indianapolis in the regular season finale last year, 34 – 24. Playing two of the three teams that handed Hillsdale losses last season will be a welcome challenge for this year’s Chargers.
“You always gotta get off to a good start. We should settle into a pretty good routine by midseason where we know what kind of football team we are,” Otterbein said. “I like the way the schedule falls. Those first two — even though they’re non-league games — getting off to a good start will be a pretty good challenge for us.”