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With Optimism in The Air, This Season’s Big Green Won’t Settle For Anything Less Than a Championship

  • Dartmouth College quarterback Dalyn Williams warms up before an Aug. 28 practice at Memorial Field. The sophomore was the 2012 Ivy League Rookie of the Year after passing for 974 yards and seven touchdowns and rushing for 262 yards and three touchdowns. Valley News - Tris Wykes

    Dartmouth College quarterback Dalyn Williams warms up before an Aug. 28 practice at Memorial Field. The sophomore was the 2012 Ivy League Rookie of the Year after passing for 974 yards and seven touchdowns and rushing for 262 yards and three touchdowns. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dominick Pierre, shown carrying the ball during a Sept. 16 practice, will be a key player for the Big Green during his senior season. Valley News - Tris Wykes

    Dominick Pierre, shown carrying the ball during a Sept. 16 practice, will be a key player for the Big Green during his senior season. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dartmouth College quarterback Dalyn Williams warms up before an Aug. 28 practice at Memorial Field. The sophomore was the 2012 Ivy League Rookie of the Year after passing for 974 yards and seven touchdowns and rushing for 262 yards and three touchdowns. Valley News - Tris Wykes
  • Dominick Pierre, shown carrying the ball during a Sept. 16 practice, will be a key player for the Big Green during his senior season. Valley News - Tris Wykes

Hanover — Ten games to glory. That’s the mindset of the Dartmouth College football team as it kicks off its most anticipated season in nearly 20 years. Not since the Big Green attempted to defend its last Ivy League title, in 1997, have hopes been this high.

“Coach (Buddy) Teevens has been preaching that we have a championship-caliber team, and I really think we have a great shot at winning the league,’’ said junior quarterback Alex Park, whose team opens the campaign at Butler University in Indianapolis on Saturday night. “I feel like we have the pieces in place now to make a real run.”

Two first-team, All-Ivy honorees are back in senior linebacker Michael Runger, who led the league in tackles last fall, and senior safety Garrett Waggoner. Also returning are 2012 Ivy Rookie of the Year Dalyn Williams, a sophomore quarterback who will split time with Park, and versatile, senior running back Dominick Pierre.

It was only five years ago that Dartmouth bottomed out with a winless season, but it’s gone 6-4, 5-5 and 6-4 overall the past three seasons, tying for second place in the Ivies last fall at 4-3. The Big Green carries a six-game, road unbeaten streak into Saturday’s game.

“The biggest change is the off-season mindset of the team,” said Green, who appeared in 28 games his first three seasons. “After (2010) we thought we could do the same thing in the off-season and then we’d win all the close games we’d lost the season before.

“Last year, we had a pretty solid season, but it frustrated us more than anything and left us asking what we could do to become better. We’ve been trying to take every step we can to win those close games.”

Dartmouth had four games decided by seven or fewer points last season, winning two of them. If the Big Green had won them all, it would have captured its first Ancient Eight crown since 1996. That realization has been a driving force behind the team’s workouts ever since, and Pierre said the intensity put into weightlifting, running and overall conditioning has ramped up significantly since he arrived as a freshman.

“The off season wasn’t the same as it is now,’’ said the Floridian, who ran for 830 yards and averaged five yards a carry last year. “This summer, we had a lot of guys who truly did everything they could, because they see our potential. Back then, we had guys who were happy to be average. Now, everybody wants an Ivy League title and they’re doing what it takes.”

It won’t be easy. Harvard has the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision’s best record during the past 12 years at 95-24, and Pennsylvania is gunning for its fourth league title in five years. Brown is a perennial title contender and Dartmouth plays all three of those foes on the road this fall.

Dartmouth will have to avoid some of the stumbles it’s had in recent seasons. Losing twice in succession to Sacred Heart was deflating, Penn narrowly escaped several times and Harvard annually makes the Big Green look like a jayvee team.

Dartmouth’s offense has been fairly consistent for a few years now, but the defense has often struggled. It’s looked better and more athletic during the recent preseason, however.

“This is the most speed we’ve had on the defense in a long time,’’ Green said. “We’ve got defensive lineman up front who are in shape and who can move, and we haven’t had that presence in a while. The sophomore class got a lot of snaps for us last year and we’re going to expect a lot from them.”

Green, Runger and imposing junior Eric Wickham man the linebacking corps, with defensive ends Evan Chrustic and Cody Fulleton and nose guard A.J. Zuttah in front of them. The latter two appear to have real potential, and Fulleton is a star in the making.

The secondary is led by Waggoner, a fifth-year free safety, and junior strong safety Stephen Dazzo, who was second on last year’s team in tackles. Starting cornerback Chai Reece is out for the season because of knee surgery and will be replaced by senior A.J. Dettorre. Sophomore Vernon Harris started every game as a freshman.

“I think we’ve improved the most on the defensive side of the ball,” Pierre said. “I think they’ll hold teams to minimal points.”

On offense, Williams is listed as the starting quarterback, but Park has had the better preseason. The former UNH redshirt has been slinging sharp spirals all over Memorial Field and is a much more vocal leader. Who plays when and experiences the most success will be a fascinating subplot this season.

“Dalyn and I have a good relationship,” Park said. “We’ve been roommates on the road and we hang out at times. I feel that as long as you have a civil relationship, you can make it work.

“He has a much better understanding of the offense. As a freshman, you look at the plays and you memorize where everyone is, but you don’t always understand why you’re throwing to them. Now, he’s significantly more mature mentally from that standpoint.”

Pierre has had a bit of trouble staying healthy the past two years, so some mix of sophomores Kyle Bramble and Brian Grove in the backfield is likely. Tight end is a concern, with seniors Dean Bakes more a pass-catcher than a blocker, and Cole Marcoux is a former quarterback who’s never played the position in a game.

Receiver seems solid, with standout junior Ryan McManus, explosive sophomore Victor Williams and football-baseball player Bo Patterson in starting roles. Patterson led the team in receiving as a freshman but battled injuries last fall. Speedster Kirby Schoenthaler, another junior, is out with an injury to start the season.

The offensive line lost All-Ivy center Rob Bathe and is breaking in a new left tackle in Jacob Flores. Center Sean Ronan and guard A.J. Dillione have swapped positions and the juniors will be fulltime starters for the first time. Senior guard Cohle Fowler is the unit’s leader and junior right tackle Scotty Whitmore stared every game last fall.

“We’ve got a lot of new faces up there that haven’t seen a lot of snaps, but athletically, we’ve progressed and we have greater depth,’’ said coach Buddy Teevens, now in the ninth season of his second stint at his alma mater. “There are six, seven, eight guys who can play there as opposed to maybe five or six before.”

Placekicking seems taken care of with junior Riley Lyons, but the punting and long-snapping jobs will be manned by freshmen Ben Kepley and Graydon Peterson. Until they deliver, those areas seem uncertain.

Teevens lapses into coach-speak when asked about the promise and expectations of the new season. Green is more direct.

“We have potential to be a very solid football team, but you can only control one week at a time,” Teevens said. “(Fans) can expect anything they want. We have high expectations of ourselves but we have to go to work, because there are no guarantees except that we’ve got a game against Butler.”

Said Green: “We want to graduate with a championship ring on our finger, and we’re going to do everything we can to make that happen.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.