West Liberty head football coach Roger Waialae likes what he’s seen from his football team as spring practice begins to wind down at West Family Stadium.
“It started in January with the lifting and the morning runs,” Waialae said. “Off-season conditioning can be a grind but we could tell we had a group that really wanted to work hard. By the time spring practice rolled around, they were football-starved. They couldn’t wait to get back on the field and that passion and intensity has carried over.”
The Hilltoppers return a solid nucleus from last year’s 6-5 team that won four of five games down the stretch before dropping a 33-27 decision at Notre Dame (Ohio) in a season-ending battle for third place in the MEC.
Dakota Conwell is back for his junior season at quarterback. A transfer from the University of Arizona, Conwell led all MEC quarterbacks with 386 rushing yards while passing for 1,965 yards and 23 TDs last fall. Conwell is being pushed by senior vet Dylan LaGarde and redshirt freshman Brenton Colabella.
“One of the biggest things I’ve seen this spring has been our quarterback play,” Waialae said. “Last year, we probably only had about one-third of our passing game installed but we have everything in now and all three of our guys have been excellent with sight adjustments, conversions, completion percentage, etc.
“Dakota has really picked things up but LaGarde and Colabella are right there with him. We had seen flashes before but it has been a while since we’ve seen the day-to-day consistency at that position that we’ve been getting all spring.”
The top returning receivers are Anton McCallum and Daree Goodwin, who combined for 950 yards and 13 TDs on 52 catches last fall. The speedy McCallum is also a dangerous kick returner and topped the 1,000-yard mark in all-purpose yardage last fall. Also back at wideout is rangy Max Kapron along with Osman Kargbo, one of several promising redshirt freshmen. Two of those redshirt freshmen – Marcus Malara and Ian Kelly – have made their presence felt at H-Back, the Hilltoppers’ hybrid fullback/tight end.
“That’s the benefit of being able to redshirt 22 kids last year,” Waialae said. “It greatly enhanced the maturation process and it’s been really apparent with a number of them this spring.”
Jonathan Ortiz is the leading returning rusher and has been running well. Ty Peterson also returns in the backfield along with Devone Penick, who is rounding back into form after missing last year due to a knee injury.
All-MEC honorable mention Jake Turley and 4-year starter Jon McCullough return to anchor the offensive line. Another returner, Corey Ernest, is out for the spring after knee surgery but Stansen Fonoti and Avery Goff were part-time starters a year ago while redshirt freshmen Brett Balkovec and Hunter Steel have thrown their helmets into the ring.
Four of the top six tacklers from a year ago return on the defensive side of the ball, headed by second-team All-MEC defensive tackle Darnell Vickers. Back to join Vickers on what shapes up as an outstanding defensive line are Jevon Fripp, who missed much of last year due to injury, along with the highly-productive trio of Quentin Sifford, Zach Barnes and Gavin Hutchison. Tim Moody has had a solid spring and 6-3, 340-pound juco transfer Demarlow Moses has also impressed along with redshirt freshman Ben Berkovitz.
At linebacker, Jede Fue – the opening day starter two years ago – appears to be back at 100 percent after battling injuries for the past two seasons. Veteran Andrew Faraimo, who earned All-MEC honors at safety two years ago, is getting a lot of reps at the other inside linebacker spot and could alternate between linebacker and safety depending on matchups. Markus Schumacher, the team’s second-leading tackler with 79 stops last fall, is a returning starter and Garrett Vulcano has had a big spring. Redshirt freshmen Cliff Clark and Cole Stephen will push for time along with newcomer Aaron Kesi.
Soloman Dixon, a University of Idaho transfer who led the Vandals in interceptions as a freshman, is sitting out this spring with an injury but should be good to go in the fall. Parrish McKnight, a transfer from the University of Albany (N.Y.), has shown good speed at safety. Miles Young, an honorable mention All-MEC safety last year, has also been limited by injuries this spring but with returning veterans like D’Andre Muhammad and Charles Simons, the Hilltoppers haven’t missed a beat.
The returning corners – Terrance Baldwin, Jerimy Mask and Lamar Phillps – have all taken strides forward this month. Redshirt freshman Josh Searle is sitting out the spring with a broken foot.
Zach Musilli and Shawn Carl are once again vying for the top placekicking job but a replacement must be found for record-setting punter Griff Yocum. “We have several guys who can punt,” Waialae said. “(Ronald) Jefferson can punt and Conwell punted in high school plus some of the freshmen we signed also have that on their resumes.”
The Hilltoppers will work out through in the final weekend of spring drills at the stadium. The annual Black and Gold scrimmage will be played under the lights on , beginning at
“Our No. 1 goal for the spring game is no injuries,” Waialae said. “That’s why we do a controlled scrimmage instead of a regular game. We just want the guys to play hard and compete the way they’ve been competing all spring. That competition makes everybody better.”
West Liberty kicks off the 2015 season at home on when the Hilltoppers host defending Mountain East Conference champion and NCAA Division II national semifinalist Concord.