DALLAS TWP. — In 2017, the Misericordia football team set several team records offensively and showed semblance of a balanced offense for the first time in the team’s six-year history.
The Cougars’ 199.3 passing yards per game where the most they have have ever produced in a full season good enough for sixth in the MAC.
How does the team improve on those numbers?
When the Cougars open the season on Saturday at home against United States Merchant Marine Academy at 1 p.m. at Mangelsdorf Field, they return the top playmakers from that offense, making the Cougars one of the top units in the conference for the upcoming season.
“Coming into this year, I expect us to play at a higher level than we have in the past and build off last year,” coach Mark Ross said.
Returning at quarterback is Brady Williams, who was fourth in the conference in quarterback efficiency (129.9) even besting former King’s standout Zach Whitehead, who is now playing professionally in Germany.
His two top weapons at receiver also return in Isaiah Williams and Josh Dieter, who combined to haul in over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. Williams posted the sixth-most receiving yards in the MAC last year with 830, while Dieter’s six touchdown grabs were tied for eighth-most in the league.
Sam Gillison, who was the team’s top receiver in 2016 with 582 yards and six scores, missed last season with an ACL injury and is also back on the field. Klayton Kelly returns the offense providing a spark after averaging 103 all-purpose yards per game a year ago.
“That’s a crew that when they stay healthy, we can be put some people on the field that are up to par with the best in this league,” Ross said. “That’s a group that I feel really good about when we can put them on the field.”
Where the team is young on offense is at running back where Mark Rainey held down the post last year. However, never being a conventional offense with a go-to back, Williams led the team in rushing last season with 535 yards and tied Rainey with three rushing scores.
Helping out the deep running game, which could be a platoon with four or five backs, will be the addition of new offensive line coach Aaron Mershman, who was head coach at Defiance College and was graduate assistant at Ball State and Bowling Green.
Returning to bolster the offensive line is center Len Watson, who was an All-MAC selection last year.
“A young guy who’s been a head coach so that’s always valuable to bring that experience,” Ross said about Mershman. “What it does is brings you some fresh ideas. It’s not strategically changing things, but tactically bringing things to the table that can help us.”
On defense, the Cougars lost plenty but still return three of the top five tacklers from a year ago in Nick Yeager, Noah Bard and Vincente Maldonado.
The Misericordia defense has always teetered on the brink of being a solid unit staying competitive for the first half until falling apart in the second. Last year, the team either held a lead or was within two scores at halftime in seven of the 10 games. The outcome was one win and within two scores in just one other.
The worst loss of the season came in the finale when FDU-Florham scored a go-ahead touchdown with four seconds left.
Ross is confident that his team has put that heart-breaker behind them and they won’t dwell on it this year.
“It’s something we address and have to be clued in on because yeah it can (affect them mentally),” Ross said. “A good part of success is believing you can do it and it’s a lot easier to believe when you’ve done those things. They know we had opportunities to win that game and didn’t do it. But they’ve come back and put in a great offseason and they’re excited about getting it going.”
On the schedule, the Cougars have two new faces with Castleton and MAC expansion team Alvernia. With 11 teams in the MAC now, Misericordia dropped the teams that gave it their biggest losses last season and won’t see Delaware Valley or Stevenson, the last two conference champs.
The team will only leave Luzerne County twice in the next two and a half months with six home games, and two away games being against Wilkes and King’s.
All these factors could add up to the Cougars having another history-making season this time with perhaps more than one win for the first time.
“I think it’s kinda a neat year with two new faces this year,” Ross said. “I’m excited about it. You get a little spice to the schedule. I like the changes. I’m not gonna lie. I’m not disappointed that we’re not facing DelVal this year. They’re really good for a reason.”