Same year, new team, same goal. The Saint Francis football team's Facebook account posted this message this week. With COVID-19 forcing the class of 2021 to play just a few months ago in the spring instead of a traditional fall slate, the Cougars will officially step back onto the field Saturday after finishing the truncated spring schedule with a 2-2 record and a No. 17 ranking in the final NAIA Football FirstDown PlayBook poll of the spring.
USF, ranked 14th in the first poll released Monday, will travel to Illinois on Saturday to take on first-year program Judson University at Dundee-Crown High School. The game in Carpentersville is at 7 p.m. While Saturday's contest marks the first one of the season for the Cougars, the Eagles will enter 0-2, losing to Taylor on Sept. 4 in their inaugural game, 42-26, then falling at Concordia University-Wisconsin last Saturday, 35-20.
Jack James, a junior from Snider who handled all of USF's kicking duties in the spring season (5 of 5 on extra points, 1 of 2 on field goal attempts, 35.9-yard average on eight punts), along with senior wide receiver Jay Segal (16 receptions for 166 yards in the spring), senior offensive lineman Rece Roney and senior cornerback Damon Hunter were named captains for the fall season.
The former Panther understands the significance of receiving the captaincy.
“(It's) an incredible honor and a special opportunity, and I look forward to being in this leadership position for the team, especially in my hometown,” James said. “I never got the opportunity to be a captain at Snider, so working hard these past couple years and getting rewarded like this is an amazing feeling.”
Junior Will Homan, the only Cougar this spring to run for multiple touchdowns, will join classmate Cameron Peterson as USF's most experienced returning running backs. Fellow junior Heath Simmons will take over at quarterback in place of Matt Crable, who was MSFA Mideast League Offensive Player of the Year in the spring before departing to graduation.
Simmons played in six games in 2019, completing 34 of 61 passes for 439 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions, good for a passing efficiency rating of 128.0. Two of the Cougars' top three targets last season, Segal and senior Matt Kominkiewicz (23 catches, 289 yards, three touchdowns), will give Simmons proven options on the outside.
Junior Isaac VanCuren (four receptions for 25 yards in three games) also returns for Saint Francis, along with five players that caught two passes in the spring – Homan, Peterson, junior Nathan Harrah and sophomores Eli Patchett and John Allen.
“Heath is one of my favorite guys on the team, and I think a lot of my other teammates could say the same,” James said. “His work ethic and dedication have really shown over these past couple months in preparing to be the starter at quarterback, which is no small task.
“I think he has taken the promotion very well, and I am excited to see what he can do for us this year. I think everyone believes in him as an offensive leader and all of the guys love playing with him.”
On defense, River Walsh returns for his junior year after leading USF in the spring in solo tackles (19) and finishing second in total tackles (35, one behind Nick Lucas' 36). Hunter and East Noble graduates Andrew McCormick and Bailey Parker will provide experience in the defensive secondary, while Ethan Theurer and Dekahri Jones should lead the way up front for the defense.
While coach Kevin Donley, now in his 24th season at USF and 43rd season overall as a head coach, gave his players most of the month of May to recuperate from the spring season, James noted that many players worked hard through June and July to hopefully overcome the frustrations of getting left out of the national tournament.
Because although it's a new team in the same year, it's the same goal – hoisting the national championship trophy.
“The shortened spring season gave this team a new perspective of how valuable each game is and how imperative it is that everyone give their best effort in order to succeed,” James said. “Going into this season, we've been able to have more of a regular preparation schedule in actually having camp before the season and getting a baseline installation.
“I think that return to regularity has put everyone on the team in a more team-oriented, prepared mindset.”
Saturday: at Judson, 7 p.m.
Sept. 25: at St. Xavier, 1 p.m.
Oct. 2: Siena Heights, noon *
Oct. 9: Madonna, noon
Oct. 16: at Marian, 6 p.m. *
Oct. 23: Indiana Wesleyan, noon *
Oct. 30: at Taylor, 1 p.m. *
Nov. 6: Lawrence Tech, noon *
Nov.13: Concordia-Ann Arbor, noon *
* – MSFA Mideast League game