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April 01. 2014 9:53PM

Allen Lessels' UNH Notebook: New players, new coaches, on gridiron

DURHAM -- THE Wildcats of the University of New Hampshire football team buckled their hard hats and got to work early on Tuesday morning on Bremner Field, which was circled by snowbanks.

A breeze made things a bit chilly later in UNH’s first practice of spring football, but nobody seemed to mind.

“It feels real good to be back out here and getting out of the indoor track,” said Matt Kaplan, a defensive tackle from Franklin who will be a senior in the fall. “You’re in the weight room and we’re working on our athletic ability, but the bottom line is we’re all here to play football so it’s good to get back out here and be football players.”

And football coaches.

“It was nice,” said head coach Sean McDonnell as he left the field, thankful for clear skies and not the wet and raw conditions of Monday morning. “After what you woke up and saw yesterday, it was a lot better than what you anticipated. It was good. We got a lot of things done today.”

There is much to do to over the next NCAA-allotted 14 practices and month of spring football that closes with the annual Blue-White Spring Game on May 3.

The goals remain lofty for a team that has established itself as one of the best at the FCS level and has been to the playoffs each of the past 10 seasons.

Last year, UNH finished 10-5 and advanced to the FCS semifinals for the first time before losing at North Dakota State to the eventual three-time national champions.

“Truthfully, this year I don’t think anyone will be happy with just making it to the semifinals,” Kaplan said. “We want to go all the way this year. I want to win a national championship. Everyone wants a ring. That’s the goal.”

The defense made strides last year — the Wildcats allowed 23 points a game, down from 30 the year before — and is looking to make more.

One of the tasks for this spring is to integrate three new defensive coaches into the mix under McDonnell and defensive coordinator John Lyons, the former Dartmouth College head coach.Peter McCarty, a 30-year veteran of coaching with various stops along the way and most recently at Fordham, is working with the defensive line. Garrett Gillick, who played linebacker at the University of Maine and graduated from there in 2000, comes over from Bentley University and is assigned to the linebackers. And Exeter native Kyle McAllister, a grad assistant last year, has moved up and is working as an assistant on the defensive line.

They replace Jon Shelton, who had been at UNH for eight years and is now the defensive coordinator at Southern Connecticut State; Chris Van Horn, who is coaching defensive tackles at Stephen F. Austin University after three years at UNH; and Art Link, who coached linebackers at UNH and is the new defensive coordinator at Lafayette.

“They bring different energy to the group and as in all things we tell the kids, it’s going to be a learning process for all of us,” McDonnell said. “It’s going to an adjustment. And I’m pretty excited about it.”

______

THE gymnastics team gets on a bus on Thursday morning for an eight-hour drive to Penn State University for the NCAA Regionals.

The Wildcats, who have been dealing with a bug going around the team this week, are the No. 4 seed in the regional behind No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Oregon State and No. 3 Penn State. Kentucky is No. 5 and Maryland is No. 6.

The top two teams in each of six regionals advance to the nationals.

In effect, one spot is available at Penn State, said UNH coach Gail Goodspeed.

“Florida is just about unbeatable,” she said. “They’re ranked No. 1 in the country, they’re defending national champions and they’re amazing.

“It’s really five teams competing for one spot.”

Oregon State is ranked No. 12 in the country, Penn State is No. 15 and UNH is No. 23.

Penn State edged UNH — which is led by seniors Hannah Barile and Jannelle Minichiello, junior Erika Rudiger and freshman Meghan Pflieger — in a meet in Durham on March 8.

UNH won its only regional in 1994 and went on to finish 12th in the national championships.

“It’s doable,” Goodspeed said of making it to the nationals. “But it’s the biggest challenge of the year, obviously. I think the second spot really is up for grabs with Oregon State and Penn State being kind of the favorites.”

______

THE track and field teams have home meets scheduled for the next two Saturdays at 11 a.m. each day.

Teams from Maine, Holy Cross, Northeastern, Bates, Bowdoin and New England College are due to compete this Saturday.

Maine, Dartmouth, Bowdoin, Fitchburg State and Babson are expected on April 12.

The fields for the event have shuffled some recently as teams scramble to find places to compete given still-wintry conditions in many areas.

UNH also plays host to the America East pre-conference meet on April 26.

The America East championships are at the University of Vermont on May 3 and 4.

alessels@unionleader.com


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