The NCAA Division III football playoff field is typically stacked with the usual national powerhouses, including Mount Union, Wisconsin-Whitewater, Mary Hardin-Baylor and Wesley. In 2013, Gallaudet University joined the select group.
The Bison football team became the first men's squad in school history to reach an NCAA tournament, and in the process created a memorable experience for everyone associated with the world's only university for the deaf and hard of hearing. A nine-game winning streak propelled the Bison to their first Eastern Collegiate Football Conference championship and a first-round NCAA game against Hobart, who had been ranked in the national top 10 for most of the season. A 34-7 loss brought the 9-2 campaign to an end, but the Bison had set the standard for all future Gallaudet teams.
"It was a new experience that was a bit overwhelming," said Chuck Goldstein, now in his sixth year as Gallaudet's head coach. "Hopefully, we'll get an opportunity for a redo. That's now the goal every year."
Gallaudet will begin the difficult task of repeating as conference champions and NCAA participants Aug. 14, when the Bison will hold their first practice of the 2014 season. With three weeks of preparation before the Sept. 6 season opener against Shenandoah University at Hotchkiss Field, Goldstein will have to find capable replacements for several key contributors.
With the departure of defensive end Adham Talaat and quarterback Todd Bonheyo, the Bison will not look the same. Talaat, who graduated after Gallaudet's landmark season, is still trying to land a spot in the NFL after tryouts with the Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs and New York Giants. Bonheyo, who rushed for 583 yards and scored a team-leading seven touchdowns in 2013, is sitting out the campaign after suffering a knee injury late last season.
After attempting 70 passes during 11 games last year, Gallaudet will again turn to its effective ground game. Junior BJ Flores, Gallaudet's workhorse running back, gained a conference-leading 1,227 yards on 237 carries in 2013. Flores will run behind an offensive line that returns four starters in senior Shawn Madden, junior Todd Collins, junior Leo Parnell and sophomore Sean Fenton.
"The offense is set around BJ," Goldstein said. "His work ethic is unmatched, and we're going to ride him this year."
Flores, who was named a first-team preseason All-American by the Beyond Sports Network, will be joined by two more skilled runners. Junior Braxton Baker rushed for 240 yards on a 5.1 per-carry average in 2013. Quentin Williams, a junior who gained 222 yards on 66 carries while backing up Bonheyo last year, will be the starting quarterback.
"We want to manage the clock and keep our defense fresh," Goldstein said of an offense that kept the ball for more than 35 minutes per game and led all NCAA divisions in time of possession last season. "We have to be able to throw, but we're not going to change our offensive philosophy."
The Bison also have a solid group of returning defensive playmakers. Gallaudet surrendered 16.5 points per game last season, and held seven opponents to two touchdowns or fewer. Two of the unit's most productive players, senior linebackers Gregg McConville and Jaris Alleyne, will spearhead Gallaudet's defensive effort. McConville and Alleyne, who received second-team preseason All-American recognition from the Beyond Sports Network, combined for 185 tackles and recorded three sacks each. Senior defensive end Travis Snider (46 tackles, 6.5 sacks) will contribute to a strong pass rush, while senior AJ McCrea and sophomore Carnelius Smith are expected to lead the secondary.
"I think we have one of the best linebacker tandems in the conference," Goldstein said. "Gregg is a team captain who worked his way through special teams to become a starter. Jaris, who had his Junior Pro Day here in February, plays the game at a different level."
Goldstein said he cherished the achievements of last season, but told his players to put 2013 in their memory banks.
"We made it clear when we started offseason workouts that this is a new team and a new season," Goldstein said. "We don't talk about conference championships and the NCAAs. We're just focused on competing at a high level."