Humboldt State Picked To Repeat As Football Champions
Humboldt State went 10-2 in 2015 and undefeated in GNAC play. Their only two losses were on the road at Midwestern State and in the playoffs to eventual national champion Northwest Missouri State.
Humboldt State went 10-2 in 2015 and undefeated in GNAC play. Their only two losses were on the road at Midwestern State and in the playoffs to eventual national champion Northwest Missouri State.

Monday, August 15, 2016

PORTLAND, Ore. – After taking the league by storm en route to its first NCAA Division II playoff appearance in five years, Humboldt State has been picked to repeat as champion by the league’s coaches in the 2016 Great Northwest Athletic Conference Preseason Football Poll.

The Lumberjacks received 23 points and picked up four of five possible first place votes. Azusa Pacific, which saw its string of two straight GNAC titles snapped by Humboldt State, received the fifth first place and is picked second with 18 points.

The Cougars, however, are not the clear pick for second. Western Oregon, which placed second in the league last year, is a close third with 17 points. Central Washington was picked fourth with 12 points while Simon Fraser is picked fifth with five points.

Humboldt State, ranked No. 13 in the first AFCA Division II Coaches Poll of the season, used one of the top offenses in Division II to roll to a 10-2 record last year, becoming the first GNAC playoff team since 2009. Its only losses came to top-25 teams on the road in Midwestern State and in the second round of the playoffs to eventual national champion Northwest Missouri State. The Lumberjacks finished ninth in Division II in scoring offense (41.4 points per game), 10th in rushing offense at 265.2 yards per game and 18th in total offense at 473.8 yards per game.

The Lumberjacks’ offense will be potent once again with 15 letterwinners and six starters back in 2016. The list is led by superstar running back Ja’Quan Gardner. The runner-up for the Harlon Hill Award as a sophomore, Gardner set GNAC records with 2,266 rushing yards, 338 carries and 2,369 all-purpose yards. He led Division II in rushing yards, rushing yards per game and rushing touchdowns en route to being named the GNAC Offensive Player of the Year and a consensus First Team All-American.

Also returning on offense for Humboldt is First Team All-GNAC senior wide receiver Chase Krivashei, who led the GNAC with 15 receiving touchdowns and an average of 77.2 receiving yards per game, and junior quarterback Robert Webber, who threw for 2,239 yards and 22 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. The three will be protected by one of the top offensive lines in the country, led by junior All-American and two-time GNAC Offensive Lineman of the Year Alex Cappa and Second Team All-American Lucas Govan.

The question mark for Humboldt State is on defense where the Lumberjacks lost three key starters. Second Team All-GNAC linebacker Cameron Buell paces the returners after he finished with 89 tackles in 2015, including 12.5 for loss. Stepping up to fill holes on the defensive line are seniors Christian Castro and Darrian Hanberry and sophomore Emilio Rodriguez.

Azusa Pacific took a step back after losing All-American running back Terrell Watson to graduation, but still proved to be a formidable opponent. The Cougars won three of their first four games and then finished the season winning three of four to tie with Central Washington for third in the GNAC. Of Azusa Pacific’s four losses, two were by just three points.

Like Hunboldt State, Azusa Pacific returns their key performers on offense and another dynamic running back. Kurt Scoby finished second to Gardner in every rushing category as a freshman, averaging 110.8 rushing yards per game on 162 carries with 11 touchdowns. His efforts earned Scoby First Team

All-GNAC honors and selection as the league’s Freshman of the Year. The Cougars also return the two-headed junior quarterback tandem of Chad Jeffries and Andrew Elffers. Jeffries earned Second Team All-GNAC honors as he completed 101 passes for an average of 184.1 yards per game and seven touchdowns. Elffers finished with 64.8 passing yards per game on 33 completions and accounted for 12 touchdowns, six passing and six rushing. Azusa Pacific will be further helped by a pair of talented returning kickers and Jamie Cacciatore and Jacob Hall and kick returner Tyree Davis.

First Team All-GNAC linebacker Jonathan Thropay leads the list of seven defensive starters returning for the Cougars. Thropay finished his junior season with 80 tackles and 7.5 for loss. Second Team All-GNAC safety Taliuaki Suliafu added 53 tackles to go along with a pair of interceptions. The defense is further bolstered by senior safety Hunter Malberg, senior cornerback CJ Broussard and senior defensive lineman Billy Tanuvasa.

Picked to finish fourth last year, Western Oregon proved to be the surprise of the conference. After losing three of their first four games, the Wolves came back to win six striaight games, including a 24-22 upset of North Alabama at home, to set up a showdown for the GNAC title with Humboldt State in the final game of the season. The two teams will square off in a nationally televised game on Oct. 22. Western Oregon compiled a 7-4 record despite scoring 24.3 points per game, which ranked fifth among the GNAC’s seven teams.

Western Oregon returns a number of key players on offense and defense, but will look to fill key holes at quarterback, kicker and punter. The offense and special teams will be paced by junior Paul Revis, who was selected All-GNAC at three different positions and a Third Team All-American by the Don Hansen committee as a return specialist. At wide receiver, Revis caught 44 passes for 710 yards and six touchdowns. In the return game, Revis returned 20 punts for an average of 12.1 yards per return and two touchdowns to go along with 17 kickoff returns for 22.5 yards per return.

Senior receiver Wesley Gray caught 21 passes for 251 yards and is expected to have a bigger role in the offense in 2016. The same is true for sophomore running back Malik Braxton, who finished with 634 rushing yards and four touchdowns. The Wolves also return 2015-16 GNAC Male Athlete of the Year Andy Avgi, who was named First Team All-GNAC at tight end in his first season of collegiate football.

Senior defensive lineman George Swartzlender leads a list of returning defensive starters after he finished 2015 with 51 tackles, including 9.5 for loss and a fumble recovery. Second Team All-GNAC linebacker Tyler Johnson added 64 tackles, the most among WOU returners, with six tackles for loss and three sacks.

Central Washington tied with Azusa Pacific for third in the GNAC while compiling a 5-5 record under second year head coach Ian Shoemaker. The Wildcats won three straight at the start of GNAC play, but had trouble building consistency with a number of personnel changes over the course of the season.

What was consistent, however, was the play of wide receiver/return specialist Jesse Zalk. Named a First Team All-GNAC performer at both positions and a First Team All-American by Don Hansen, Zalk finished fifth in Division II with a combined 989 kick return yards and third with a total of 186 all-purpose yards per game. Zalk returned 31 kicks for an average of 26.2 yards per return and also returned 18 punts for an average of 9.9 yards per return. At wide receiver, Zalk average 75 yards per game on 43 catches with four touchdowns.

Senior quarterback Justin Lane will lead the CWU offense. After becomg the regular starter three games into the season, Lane completed 143 passes for 2,001 yards and 12 touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Justin Peterson caught 24 passes for 397 yards and two touchdowns while junior tight end Christian Gasca saught 29 passes for 456 yards and three scores. The Wildcats will be protected by an experienced offensive line that includes Second Team All-GNAC sophomore James Moore and seniors Josh Stolz and Andrew Ulrich.

On defense, there may not be a more solid returning crew than Central Washington. First Team All-GNAC linebacker Kevin Haynes registered 73 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in his sophomore season, while fellow junior linebacker Sean Elledge added 41 tackles and a pair of blocked kicks. The Wildcats also welcome back the return of defensive lineman Tovar Sanchez after he missed the 2015 season. A First Team All-GNAC selection in 2014, Sanchez finished his junior campaign with 55 tackles, including an impressive 22.5 for loss and 12 sacks.

Simon Fraser is looking for a change in fortune after going 0-9 under first year head coach Kelly Bates. While the Clan went winless in 2015, they proved quite competitive in the GNAC portion of the schedule with three of their conference losses coming by 10 points or less.

The Clan’s returning strength will be on defense with the return of two-time GNAC Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Herdman. An All-American selection by the D2CCA and Don Hansen at linebacker, Herdman led the conference with 133 tackles, which included a GNAC single season record 72 solo tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss. He enters the season needing just 70 tackles, 59 solo tackles and 30 assisted tackles to become the GNAC career leader in all three categories.

Jordan’s brother, Justin Herdman, provides Simon Fraswer a potent one-two defensive punch. The linebacker also earned First Team All-GNAC honors with 83 tackles, including 13 for loss, and 3.5 sacks.

On offense, the Clan will be led by a trio of Second Team All-GNAC selections. Senior running back Ante Milanovic-Litre finished with a total of 103 all-purpose yards per game and did most of his damage as a receiver, catching 38 balls for 272 yards. Junior wide receiver Justin Buren caught 36 passes for 644 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 71.6 yards per game. The all-conference returners also includes junior offensive lineman Felix Gacusana.

A smaller conference means it will be tougher to come home with a conference title. With the departure of Dixie State and South Dakota Mines to the RMAC, the GNAC will play an eight-game double round-robin schedule to determine the champion. Conference play opens with two games on Sat., Sept. 10 with Western Oregon hosting Central Washington and Humboldt State hosting Azusa Pacific. The 2016 season commences on Thurs., Sept. 1 with two games. Azusa Pacific hosts West Texas A&M and Humboldt State plays at Carson-Newman in a game that will be shown live on ESPN3.

Rank Team (1st Place Votes) 2015 Record GNAC Record (Finish) Points
1. Humboldt State (4) 10-2 6-0 (1st) 23
2. Azusa Pacific (1) 6-4 3-3 (tie 3rd) 18
3. Western Oregon 7-4 5-1 (2nd) 17
4. Central Washington 5-5 3-3 (tie 3rd) 12
5. Simon Fraser 0-9 0-6 (7th) 5
Points awarded on 5-4-3-2-1 basis.