The wait is finally over for the University of La Verne football team.
After a lengthy hiatus due to an opening week bye, the Leopard squad is set to make its 2012 season debut as it plays host to Whitworth in the Grand Re-opening of Ortmayer Stadium on Saturday night.
There is reason for the Leopard faithful to feel optimism heading into this season. La Verne ended the 2011 campaign on a high note, winning three of its final four games to finish 4-5 overall and 3-3 in the conference standings under head coach Chris Krich.
"Finishing the season third in conference gave our players a confidence boost going into the offseason," Krich said. "For the first time in many years they had the feeling they could go into this season and win. So I think it added to our enthusiasm and motivated our players to work harder in the offseason, and that work was now going to equate to winning more football games."
Krich built upon last year's late-season momentum into the solid recruiting class, and this season the Leopards concluded preseason camp with 121 players. "Having 121 players going into the first game means we had great competition at each position. We had a total of 71 new players show up on our first day, and that is credited to the hard work of our assistant coaches and admissions staff."
Now in his second season, Krich also says the new infusion of talent has resulted in great competition along with solid depth at each position. He also added that the returning players were pushed and have to continually battle with the new incoming players. "No spot is safe, so if you are a #1 you're going to have to work hard to stay at that spot because #2 wants your job," he said. "I see a lot of life lessons associated with athletics, and competition on the football field is one of those life lessons. You have to work hard and reach your full potential every day."
On offense, the Leopards will continue to implement a balanced attack that produced an increase in productivity a year ago. "We are going to take what the defense gives us," said Krich. "It's a very simple concept, by being multiple if the opposing team tries to stop our run we will pass, if they try to stop the pass we will run. We try not to make concepts or ideas very difficult. We want our players not thinking out there and just playing. With that we are going to utilize matchups and put our playmakers in positions to make plays.
At quarterback, true freshman Drew Podrebarac has been named the starter for the opener. A native of North Carolina, Podrebarac was rated as one of the top high school players in the nation last year and was recruited by the likes of Wake Forest and Duke. The Leopards have valuable depth at the quarterback spot with proven veterans Jose Garay and Garry Hedlund along with Travis Carter.
The Leopards return All-SCIAC tight end Christian Winnewisser, who caught 21 passes for 314 yards a year ago.
At running back, Matt Biggers rushed for a team-high 617 yards and four scores en route to Second Team All-SCIAC selections a year ago. Other Leopard running backs likely to contribute include Travis Sparks-Jackson and Felipe Valdez.
The Leopards will continue to implement an attack-style defense as Krich emphasizes the need to increase tackles for loss and turnovers. "We want to bring a lot of pressure and make the opposing offenses have to adjust to what we are doing," he said. "We don't want to sit back and just react, we want to apply a lot of pressure to the opposition."
La Verne returns six starters including senior defensive lineman Alex Barrios and sophomore defensive lineman Nik Gutierrez. Barrios was a First Team All-SCIAC honoree last year while Gutierrez garnered Second Team All-SCIAC accolades last season as a true freshman. Both Barrios and Gutierrez registered four sacks to tie for third in the conference.
The linebacking corps includes Manny Macias along with newcomer Anthony Arguello, the younger brother of former Leopard signal-caller Thomas Arguello. A veteran secondary features the likes of Donald Mull, Ky Dorsey, Willie Griffin and Nick St. Clair.
On special teams, Alex Miller, a Second Team All-SCIAC honoree from a year ago will likely handle placekicking duties while freshman Nick Kaiser has emerged as the starting punter. Miller ranked fifth in scoring with 43 points and finished 7-11 in field goal attempts. Kick and punt return positions will be headed by Valdez, Fernandez and Lucas.
In addition to Whitworth, the Leopards host Redlands (Oct. 13), Pomona-Pitzer (Oct. 20) and Occidental (Nov. 10). The Leopards' home contest against the Sagehens on October 20 serves as the annual Homecoming Game.
The Leopards will play three consecutive road games beginning with NAIA opponent Menlo on September 22. The next week, the Leopards begin SCIAC conference play with a short trek to Claremont to take on Claremont-Mudd-Scripps on September 29, followed with a trip to Whittier on October 6.
La Verne's game against Chapman will mark the first-ever conference clash between the longtime rivals. Chapman officially joined the SCIAC in 2011 and will be eligible for conference championships in all sports – including football – beginning this fall. The Leopards and Panthers will do battle on October 27 in Orange.
The Leos will face two-time defending conference champion Cal Lutheran on November 3 in Thousand Oaks.