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The Tangerine

The Student News Site of Utica University

The Tangerine

The Student News Site of Utica University

The Tangerine

Beat writers unanimous on Utica’s 2023 NCAA tournament chances

The+Utica+Pioneers+are+2-0+after+their+Sept.9++35-20+win+over+Moravian+University.+
Kayleigh Sturtevant
The Utica Pioneers are 2-0 after their Sept.9 35-20 win over Moravian University.

Utica began its 2023 campaign and 14th season under Head Coach Blaise Faggiano on Sept. 2. The Pioneers narrowly avoided a season-opening loss with a 20-17 win over the University of Rochester, a team they defeated by double digits in last year’s season opener. After finishing the 2022 season with their best record in program history, 10-2, the Pioneers played in their first-ever NCAA tournament and walked away with a first-round win.

Brett Fuller, a sophomore quarterback, leads the huddle this season with a 2-0 start after their Sept. 9 Believe Bowl performance, following Braeden Zenelovic’s transition into the coaching staff. With their first conference match-up three weeks away, Here is how our beat writers think the Pioneers will finish this season:

 

James Boss

Tempered expectations 

Record: 6-4

MVP: John Stroughn

X-Factor: Eli Douglas

The Utica Pioneers put together their best season in program history, making it to the Sweet 16 in their first-ever NCAA playoff berth. However, expectations for the team heading into the new season should be tempered. They lost three of their best players in program history during the offseason, Nate Palmer and Jimmy Warren both graduated and Zenelovic joined the coaching staff. The defense also lost three of their starting defensive backs and will rely on several underclassmen to fill the holes. 

On the offensive end, the Pioneers look to be a bit shaky after their week one win over the University of Rochester. Sophomore quarterback Fuller showed flashes but struggled to move the ball in the second half. 

While the offense may struggle this year, the defense looks to be a force at Gaetano Stadium. Defensive tackle John Stroughn is poised for a huge senior season and sophomore Eli Douglas looks to take a big step forward with his new job as one of the starting safeties. The front seven should be one of the best in the Empire 8, but with the two big offensive departures, I do not envision this team being able to make it back to the NCAA playoffs.

 

Jeffrey Kopek 

Transition Year

Record: 6-4

MVP: Matt Brantley 

X-Factor: Terrance Toussaint  

Utica University put themselves on the Division III college football map last season after their first appearance and win in the NCAA Tournament. Do not expect much of the same for the team this season. Not for the lack of drive or desire, but strictly they lost a lot and the inexperience is certainly there. That doesn’t mean there’s no hope. The Pioneers have a transition year ahead of them. 

Last year they went 9-1 in the regular season behind superstar upperclassmen quarterback Zenelovic, wide receiver Palmer, and defensive end Warren.

That also doesn’t mean the Pioneers have not prepared for this season. Many of those additions came on the coaching staff and the offensive side of the ball. Zenelovic, as a graduate assistant quarterback, will oversee the production and development of the sophomore quarterback. 

Fuller posted an impressive start to the season against the University of Rochester, going 19/26 for 164 yards and throwing two touchdowns on one interception. The team has also brought in former offensive lineman Mike Kreuter as a student coach on the offensive line. There’s much anticipation that these two young coaches will be a huge help in the offensive schemes supported by the young quarterback. 

The Pioneer’s schedule favors the likes of a transition year with their hardest games coming against Empire 8 rivals, SUNY Cortland on Oct. 7 and SUNY Brockport on Oct. 28. 

Although the Pioneers’ opening stretch suggests much room to keep its confidence up, a 6-4 record keeps the Pioneers above .500 and their heads high going into the following year, where expectations should be to climb their way back into that NCAA Tournament. 

 

Ezekiel Prince

Going Bowl-ing for the U

Record: 7-3 

MVP: Anthony Novello 

X-Factor: The Offensive Lineman 

Last season was pretty Palmer-centric. He had 38% of the total receiving yards and 18 out of 23 receiving touchdowns for the offense. Zenelovic had the best quarterback year in program history, setting records in passing yards, passing touchdowns, average yards per attempt, and pass efficiency in 2022. 

The 2023 season will not compare to 2022. The team had 20 players from their 10-2 roster depart. The most crucial departure was offensive coordinator Joe Gerbino. Gerbino was an essential voice in the locker room, heavily involved in recruiting and the play-calling maestro of the Pioneer’s offense. 

With a top-three defensive unit in the Empire 8, it is a huge deal that all players on defense have a full year in Jamey’s McClendon system. The linebacker room is talented with Anthony Fasano, Anthony Novello, and Darius Johnson. The defense held the Yellowjackets to 43 rushing yards in the season opener on 29 attempts, 1.5 yards per carry, 258 yards of defense, and nine tackles for loss. 

The schedule favors the Pioneers having a great season. In the first five games, the opponents they will face had a combined record of 15-34 last season. The schedule gets challenging once the calendar flips from September to October when the Pioneers face SUNY Cortland, SUNY Morrisville, and SUNY Brockport in the weeks to come. A 7-3  record with a bowl appearance in late November will conclude a successful season for the Pioneers but not as historic as 2023.  

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