By: Justin Brouckaert, Vanguard Sports Editor
With renovations at Wickes Stadium now complete, SVSU now has new turf, new lights, a new scoreboard and the attention of the national media.
Now the only thing left to do is play football.
After reaching the playoffs in 2009, the Cardinals followed up with a disappointing 4-7 record in last year’s campaign. The expectations for 2011 are much higher.
“I really like the mentality of this team,” said fourth-year head coach Jim Collins. “I think we’ve got chemistry right now and it’s competitive, which is what you want to see, especially in this part of the year.”
After finishing at the bottom of the GLIAC North in 2010, SVSU was picked to finish third in the annual preseason coaches poll released earlier this month. Collins, who is 20-13 in three seasons with SVSU, said that his team isn’t satisfied with the prediction.
“To be honest, our guys have higher expectations than third place in the GLIAC north,” Collins said. “If people think that we’re just third in the north then we’ve got to use that to motivate us.”
Much of the Cardinals’ success in 2011 depends on the arm of sophomore quarterback Jonathon Jennings, who is expected to start after splitting time under center in 2010.
“I feel like I can definitely do the job,” Jennings said. “That’s what I came here to do: play quarterback.”
Collins said that Jennings has greatly improved since his playing time last year as a true freshman, when he passed for 1,064 yards with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions.
“I think the big thing is that he understands things a lot better, and his leadership has really taken a leap,” Collins said. “He’s stepped up more in the leadership role by directing other guys and leading by example, but also by his ability to communicate with the guys.”
Jennings won’t be alone in leading the Cardinals’ offensive charge this season. Joining him will be several key returners, including senior wide receiver Nick Gallina, junior tight end Zach Cecich and junior running back Ronnie Lark.
“We’re looking pretty good, and we’re trying to get better every day,” said Lark, who rushed for 989 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010. “I feel like I’m ready mentally and physically. I just have to trust my big front, trust my quarterback, and after that it’s all left in my hands to break out on the big runs.”
Lark will be running behind three returning starters on the offensive line: senior Nick DiPalma, senior Frank Toarmina and sophomore Tevon Conrad.
On defense, the Cardinals return their entire defensive line of seniors Paul Webb and Brandon Williams, sophomore Ryan Busch and junior Nate Snyder.
Sophomore Grant Caserta, the team’s leading tackler in 2010, returns to lead the SVSU linebacker corps, while junior Jeff Heath and senior Darius Middlebrooks are expected to start at the safety positions.
As a result of the renovations made to Wickes Stadium, the Cardinals will play all five of their home games at night during the 2011 season. Players and coaches hope that the changes will not only provide benefits for the team but will create an exciting atmosphere and attract more students.
“Here’s the bottom line: We need our students to be at the games,” Collins said. “Creating the atmosphere on Saturday nights where [students] can sleep in a little bit, watch a little TV and then get ready to cheer to victory, that’s what we need more than anything.
“What’s going to make it worth it to our program and to our players is if we get students to our games and they’re doing the things it takes to create a home field advantage.”
Lark also agreed that he night games should bring out more students.
“The big problem last year was that all the students I talked to were waking up in the morning and doing their own thing,” Lark said. “Everyone is really pumped to come out at night.
“There should be a lot more people, and I’m ready to get out here in front of them.”
SVSU’s stadium, team, and crowd will all be on display for the entire country when they play Ashland on Oct. 20 in a game that will be nationally televised on CBS.
However, Collins and his team are focusing on more immediate concerns: their home opener against Ferris State on Saturday, Sept. 10.
“Getting off to a good start is the biggest thing in terms of having a good season,” Collins said. “I think we’re going to come out at an emotional level that’s really high, but we have to be able to execute at a level that’s very high to win that game.”
Jennings said that he expects the offense to click well in the team’s season opener.
“We have all the athletes, we have all the talent, and I feel like we’re all capable of doing great things,” he said. “I feel like great things will come out of this group of guys.”
Kickoff for the season opener is at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, at Wickes Stadium.