2015 is a time of change for Wesleyan football. The Cards have a new coach and a new quarterback; new players have arrived, and many mainstays of the past two years have left. Though the Cardinals are coming off their second straight 7-1 season, they still have everything to prove and no reason to stop working hard to get back to the top of the NESCAC. It’s true what they say: by the time the new season kicks off, nobody really cares about what you did the year before. That sentiment is no truer now, as across the NESCAC teams are counting Wesleyan out despite the recent success that should have proved their mettle.
The team does not have any illusions about the challenges they will face, having lost 27 seniors including 18 starters and the NESCAC’s Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year. However, team tri-captain and offensive lineman Blake Cunningham ’16 said that nobody on the team is listening to any of that talk.
“Outside the team, expectations aren’t very high, but inside the team they’re really high,” he said. “A lot of people see us as a very young team with new coaches, but they don’t see [what’s going on] behind the doors: our work ethic, our practices…so we expect to do well and we’re working very hard.”
First-year head Coach Dan DiCenzo has taken over a team that has had tremendous success recently under Michael Whalen ’83, who stepped down as head football coach to devote his full attention to his post as athletic director. DiCenzo knows the team well, however, as he had been the Associate Head Coach and defensive coordinator for the last five years, allowing for a smooth changeover.
“It hasn’t been too different,” said Cunningham. “[DiCenzo] has stepped up really well and took over everything. It wasn’t that much of a change. Overall…everything is the same.”
“Dicenzo was always heavily involved, so it was a pretty seamless transition,” added offensive lineman Will Croughan ’16.
Though it may be easy to focus on who they have lost, Wesleyan will get one huge weapon back in running back LaDarius Drew ’15, who will return to the team as a graduate student after missing the 2014 season due to injury. Drew, the 2013 first-team all-NESCAC running back and 2011 NESCAC Rookie of the year, was nothing short of incredible the last time he played for Wesleyan.
“It’s huge,” said Cunningham. “He was the man two years ago. At the same time though we had [RB] Lou Stevens [’17] all-NESCAC last year so now we just have tons of guys that are amazing athletes.”
While Wesleyan boasted a potent offense last year, the defense often stole the show, as they allowed the fewest yards per game of any Division III school at a miniscule 220.8. Though they will be without Defensive Player of the Year Jake Bussani ’14, the Cardinals return all-NESCAC performers in linebacker Alex Daversa-Russo ’16 and defensive back Justin Sanchez ’17.
“It starts with Coach DiCenzo, but all of our defensive coaches haven’t changed, and the talent has been there,” said Cunningham. “I think our number two defense last year could have been just as good as our number one defense was last year.”
The offensive players feel a similar sense of confidence about their prospects this season. However, after graduating Offensive Player of the Year, QB Jesse Warren ’15, the Cardinals will have to rely on a new play caller to lead the offense.
You might see conjecturing on ESPN in the coming days as to who will line up behind the center for new college squads, but much like Ohio State, that question won’t be answered for the Cards until opening day.
Nevertheless, the team has no doubts that establishing the necessary chemistry between the QB and the receiving corps will not be a problem, especially with a talented offensive line headed by Cunningham.
“The chemistry, even outside the QB and the receivers, as a team on and off the field our chemistry is amazing,” he said. “The chemistry is the least of our worries.”
The team has adopted a philosophy of taking things one practice at a time, one day at a time, one game at a time. At the end of the day, they aren’t trying to go 8-0, they’re just trying to keep it simple and make sure that at the end of every week they finish with a W and not an L.
“We’re taking it week by week,” Cunningham says. “At the end of every day for practice and at the end of every week we’re just trying to be 1-0. So we’re trying to win the day, win the week, and then it’s on to the next day.”
The Cardinals’ season kicks off at home on Saturday, Sept. 26 against Middlebury, a team Wesleyan opened up against last year with a 22-14 road victory to begin their 7-1 season. Looking forward, Wesleyan will play three of its first four games at home, as both Bates and Colby will visit Corwin Stadium at Andrus Field in October.
“We’ve been going at it pretty hard for 3 weeks. We’ve been game planning. It’s been very serious, and we’re psyched for this Saturday,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham had one last thought on the doubters before they take the field on Saturday.