LANCASTER, PA -- It was an awakening of sorts, for both coaches and players, that took place on Franklin & Marshall College's Sponaugle-Williamson Field last fall.
For the Diplomats, seven years removed from their last winning season, it was a glimpse of what can happen when things like tempo and intensity are raised, not just for a practice or a game, but all the time.
For Shawn Halloran, their new head coach and a man in that job for the first time, it was a realization that his plan wouldn't become reality overnight.
"I think I thought the staff and myself could work more miracles than we actually could," Halloran said this week, as his Diplomats prepared for Saturday's season opener against Bethany. "Division III football, and specifically the Centennial Conference, coming from I-AA, I was really surprised at the quality of football."
Halloran, the former Boston College and NFL quarterback who succeeded Tom Gilburg at F&M a year ago, learned all about his new surroundings as the Dips won three of their last four games to finish 4-6 overall (3-3 CC). But what he learned most from that finish had a lot to do with straight-ahead, slug-it-out, fundamental football.
"When we won our last few games, we actually had a running game," he said. "I think that's what really turned the light on in my head, that to be good in this conference, you've got to be relatively balanced. But you've got to be able to run the football."
It was all there in the numbers. In their four victories (Oberlin, Dickinson, Ursinus, Gettysburg), the Dips averaged 185 ground yards per game and 4.1 a pop. In their six losses (Centre, Washington & Jefferson, Muhlenberg, Johns Hopkins, Hobart, McDaniel), they averaged 1.8 per carry and 53.3 per game.
Of course, you don't play this game with a slide rule. Teams that can run the ball have a certain attitude, born in the weight room over the winter and forged in the August heat. It is an attitude the Diplomats are still building, but they can see the changes.
"There was a big change just in intensity, how we played during practice and got ready for every Saturday," senior defensive end Matt Capone said. "We worked harder than we ever did my first two years here. It showed last year, as we played a lot better the last couple games of the season. Now I think this year, after being around in preseason, that intensity, that need, that wanting to win every game is here. The team's really coming around Coach and really starting to get everything together."
Defensive end Chris White, Capone's classmate and fellow captain along with running back Scott Stephen, couldn't agree more.
"We had one helluva summer session here," White said. "We really worked hard right off the bat, which was something that was kind of new here. I think that's going to show on Saturday afternoon."
On how many Saturday afternoons? Halloran is candid enough to credit two Centennial rivals -- Hopkins and Muhlenberg -- for playing "at a different level right now. But it's not a level that we can't overcome if we play well."
For what it's worth, F&M is projected for a middle-of-the-pack finish in the seven-team Centennial - fourth by the conference coaches and sports information directors, fifth by D3football.com. But Halloran isn't wasting much time poring over those polls.
He'd rather focus on ways to enhance that certain attitude.
Here's a look at how the Diplomats will line up:
Offense: Some would call it a difficult decision, but Halloran doesn't agree. He has three quarterbacks -- junior Jeff Harner, fifth-year senior Doug Hiltner and freshman Kyle Turner -- and he plans on playing all three, though Harner will start Saturday against Bethany.
"We'll have a starter, and then there will be periods in the game planned ahead of time where we'll get the other guys in the game, because we have confidence they can move the football," he said.
Harner, who transferred from West Chester before last season, is the returning starter. He ranked among the conference leaders in passing yards per game (second, 138.0), TD passes (third, 8) and total offense (third, 148.8). Halloran also likes his grit. "He's not afraid to pull the ball down and run over a linebacker to get the first down," the coach said.
Hiltner, granted a fifth year of eligibility due to injury as a freshman, was a highly effective No. 2 man last year, throwing for 569 yards and seven TDs in five games. He led the Dips to a 20-14 overtime victory over Dickinson, erasing a 14-6 fourth-quarter deficit with two TDs and a two-point conversion pass.
"He probably throws the best ball of all the quarterbacks, in terms of touch on the ball, and his arm strength is outstanding," Halloran said.
Stephen, last year's leading rusher (190-676, 3.6 average, 6 TDs), will be the first option on the ground. But he is a versatile player who can also line up at receiver (17-160, 3 TDs), and a former QB who completed three-of-four passes for touchdowns last season. Oh, and he also was the Dips' leading punt returner.
"He seems to be a step quicker (this year), which I think will pay huge dividends for us," Halloran said. "I think he's come a long way in a year. I think he sees he has a great opportunity this year, being a senior and a captain."
F&M suffered heavy losses at wide receiver, including Matt Wagaman and two-time All-American Justin Salton, who rewrote the CC record book. As seniors, they combined for 115 catches, 1,347 receiving yards and 11 of the team's 18 passing TDs. Their combined yardage was 68 percent of the team's passing total.
Halloran expects to replace them with a group of receivers, the most experienced of which is Lampeter-Strasburg's Derek Boyce, a junior. Boyce (13-177, 1 TD last year) will start alongside soph Rob Donofrio, but look for freshman Chris Wagner and 6-4 junior Mark DeSimone, among others, to contribute.
Sophomore Rick Dunlap returns at fullback, where he split the job with Nick Euculano last year, and sophomore Matt Mondonedo takes over for graduated tight end Dan Houseman.
Up front, only junior left tackle Jeff Pawlikowski (6-2, 237) and soph guard Nick Maturi (6-1) return. But F&M will get a boost from soph guard Brian Rice (6-2, 310) a transfer from Division I Southeast Louisiana. "I think he's brought some insight," Halloran said, "in terms of the mentality and physicalness we need to have to run the football."
Two linemen who also could help, Lancaster Catholic's Jared Barninger (6-1, 270) and Division I transfer Dev Wakeley (6-2, 290) from Jacksonville (Ala.) State, are working their way back from injuries.
Defense: Halloran has done serious retooling here, moving safeties up to linebacker and linebackers into the line in an effort to improve overall quickness and pursuit.
"We became more athletic, one, by recruiting, but two, by some positional changes which some guys had struggled with initially," he said. "But I think they're starting to see where, by moving guys from the deep level into the fronts, we've become more athletic and quicker to the football."
Capone (6-1, 245) is one of those guys on the move, to defensive end after earning Second-Team All-CC honors last year at linebacker. He is the top returning tackler (80) and posted 2.5 sacks as a junior.
At the opposite end is White (6-0, 200), whose nonstop motor makes up for a relative lack of size. He tied graduated Dan Nadler for the team lead with nine sacks, en route to earning All-CC honorable mention.
Freshman nose tackle Jack Duncan (6-0, 255) provides strength in the middle of the Dips' 3-4 front. Behind him is a corps of mobile linebackers, including juniors Chris Stepien and Joe LoCastro, soph John Warnick and freshmen George Farrell and Mike Clark. Senior Justin Koch, last year's No. 3 tackler, moves up from free safety to linebacker as well.
Sophomores Chris Santaniello, Matt Pastore and JC Capote return at corner. Capote has looked strong after an injury-plagued freshman season, Halloran said. The Dips also are young at safety, with soph Ryan Carrozza, junior Ryan Sychterz and freshmen Tom Rigby and Paul Fields.
Special Teams: Senior Dan Eggertsson gives the Dips a veteran placekicker and punter. He earned All-CC Second-Team honors last year with a 36.9 punting average and a conference-best 14 punts inside the 20. He was 18-for-23 on extra-point attempts and 2-for-4 on field-goal attempts, hitting twice from 27 yards.
Boyce was last season's top kick returner (23-548, 23.8 average), backed up by soph running back Curtis Varner (15-290, 19.3). Donofrio will handle punt returns, backed up by Stephen (9-68, 7.6).
Prediction: The Diplomats have a favorable schedule, with six of 10 games at home, including CC stalwarts Hopkins, Dickinson and McDaniel. They have a rejuvenated approach and an influx of young talent. They will continue to improve, but their overall youth will limit them to 3-3 in the conference, with a step forward to 5-5 overall.
FRANKLIN & MARSHALL AT A GLANCE
COACH - Shawn Halloran (second season, 4-6).
LAST SEASON - 4-6 overall, 3-3 Centennial Conference.
FINISH - Fourth in Centennial Conference.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS - Jr. QB Jeff Harner, Sr. QB Doug Hiltner, Sr. TB Scott Stephen, Soph. FB Rick Dunlap, Soph. RB Curtis Varner, Jr. WR Derek Boyce (Lampeter-Strasburg), Jr. WR Mark DiSimone, So. WR Rob Donofrio, Jr. T Jeff Pawlikowski, Soph. G Nick Maturi, Sr. PK/P Dan Eggertson.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS - Sr. DE Chris White, Sr. DE Matt Capone, Jr. LB Chris Stepien, Soph. LB John Warnick, So. CB Matt Pastore, So. CB J.C. Capote, So. SS Ryan Carrozza, Jr. FS Ryan Sychterz.
TOP NEWCOMERS - Soph. G Brian Rice (6-2, 310), a transfer from Division I Southeast Louisiana; Fr. RB John Weber; Fr. WR Chris Wagner; Fr. QB Kyle Turner; Fr. OL Jared Barninger (Lanc. Catholic); Fr. NT Jack Duncan (6-0, 255); Fr. LB Mike Clark; Fr. LB George Farrell.
STRENGTHS - Depth at quarterback, with experience in Harner and Hiltner, plus a fast learner in Turner. A seasoned runner in Stephen, last year's team leader in rushing. Team speed on defense, with experienced leaders in White and Capone. Eggertsson led the conference in punting average (36.9) last season.
WEAKNESSES - Offensive line returns only two starters, though Rice adds much-needed attitude, according to Halloran. Young defense, with four sophomores and three freshmen expected to start. Rushing attack must improve if this team is to climb in conference standings.
OUTLOOK - After a year of getting to know each other, plus three victories in their last four games, Halloran and his players are nothing if not upbeat. But the second-year coach knows the next step; a victory over one of their perennial nemeses. "Beat them, and then (the players) are all looking at each other and saying, 'Maybe we're on to something here.' And then we can make things happen," he said.