The 2013 season was as good as any in the history of the Chapman football program.
Its 8-1 record tied for the most wins in school history; its 500.1 total yards-a-game and 45 points-per-game were both program bests.
But, Chapman’s loss to Redlands left Chapman the team in second place in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC), and out of postseason play, and left Chapman motivated to top its record setting 2013 season.
“You can’t just live on what you did a year ago,” head coach Bob Owens said. “We want to improve and believe we can be more consistent and aggressive.”
An important part of building consistency will be the return of team leaders on both sides of the ball. Last season, the Panthers outscored their opponents by an average of 45-20. Yet, in order to improve, Owens said the team needs to tighten their defense.
“We have to be more aggressive and win at the line of scrimmage,” Owens said. “This will give ourselves the chance to force more turnovers.”
For the Panthers defense, that meant a training camp consisting of hard practices and a commitment to accountability. When the team made mistakes, they did pushups and extra running.
“We’re a smaller and quicker defense, and we pride ourselves on being aggressive,” Greg Johnson, senior linebacker said. “Our success starts with practice and we have to always be thinking about getting the ball.”
A leader on the defense, Johnson is one of 11 Panthers who were named to the All- SCIAC team last year by the SCIAC head coaches. Johnson, who led Chapman in tackles with a total of 64 total tackles, was named to the USA College Football Division III Preseason All-American team along with senior quarterback Michael Lahey, senior tight end Anthony Ezeakunne, senior kicker Markus Trujillo, defensive back Osayande Aikhionbare and junior offensive lineman Chris Hicks. Johnson and Lahey were named to the first team, Ezeakunne was named to the second team, Trujillo and Aikhionbare checked in on the third team and Hicks earned honorable mention.
However, the All-American teams were not as exclusive as a typical list, with twenty-two spots for offense and defense, but with numerous slots at each position. Lahey was one of eight first team quarterbacks.
Lahey was also awarded the SCIAC Offensive Player of the Year award. Lahey lead the nation with a 75.4 completion percentage, throwing for 1,961 yards with 16 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
The Panthers will look to Lahey to provide stability for an offense that finished in the top ten in the nation last year. Joining Lahey are Ezeakunne and senior wide receiver Spencer Jordan who have watched his progression as a team leader.
“Knowing that Lahey is back there is incredible for the offense because you know what to expect,” Jordan said. “Having a quarterback that trusts you and that you trust is key.”
Another part of Chapman’s success last year was its ability to run the ball. The Panthers averaged over more than 250 rushing yards per game and 6.4 yards per carry. Using multiple running backs, the Panthers overwhelmed opponents with their ability to find open lanes and gain extra yards.
Last season, junior Cody Chapple lead the team with 781 rush yards and ten rushing touchdowns. Also receiving touches was senior Kean Stancil, who amassed 486 total rush yards.
Yet, Chapman is eagerly anticipating the return of senior Jeremiah McKibbins, who missed all of last season due to a knee injury, but ran for 1,190 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012.
McKibbins spent the offseason tirelessly working out to get his body back in playing shape. Although much of his rehab involved lifting weights and running, he attributes his progress to a better understanding of his body.
While McKibbins would love to play as much as possible, he said he’s willing to help the team in any fashion.
“I just want to win,” he said. “That’s what I love about playing Division III football, we’re here for the love of the game.”
The Panthers will get an immediate test as they kick off the season against Linfield, the fourth ranked team in the nation according to D3football.com. The Panthers are doing their best to treat the Wildcats as just another team.
“We respect that they are good team but we’re just taking it game by game,” McKibbins said. “They are humans just like us and go through similar things that we do.”
For a preview of the Linfield game, check out thepantheronline.com on Thursday.