When the sun set behind Carl Smith Stadium on Nov. 10, 2012 the UVa-Wise Cavaliers said goodbye to the Mid-South Conference and the NAIA. As the sun rose on Aug. 10 the Cavs welcomed the Mountain East Conference affiliated with NCAA Division II.
“We have a Christmas present and can’t wait to open it,” Head Coach Dewey Lusk said when referring to the new conference. “But what’s inside, you don’t know. We got to gain some experience. We have learned a lot of things with the rules and regulations and compliance. It’s been a lot of paperwork, but we’re ready to play football.”
Lusk and his Cavs are coming off of a disappointing 2012 season in which the Cavs went 3-8 and went 0-5 at home. The 2012 season began with a shocker; the Cavs defeated the No. 11 team in the country, the Bethel University Wildcats, in a 24-21 overtime victory.
The Cavs are returning 35 lettermen from last year’s team and 15 starters with the offense returning nine starters and the defense returning six.
The offense returns several key players, including four linemen senior Michael Barbour and sophomores Kevin Enix, Dustin McGill and Jose Urrutia. They will be protecting sophomore quarterback Cullen Lavoi and sophomore running back Zach Cochran.
Lavoi will have returning wide receivers, sophomore Julian Stewart and sophomore Terrance Younger, to throw to. Younger, the 2012 Mid-South Conference East Division Offensive Freshman of the Year, caught 24 balls for 515 yards and a touchdown in just five games last season.
“He’s picked up right where he left off from last year,” Lusk said about Younger.
Stewart led the team in touchdown catches with four a season ago. In his freshman campaign Lavoi threw for 1,636 yards and seven touchdowns in nine starts. The Cavs have started several quarterbacks in the past couple of seasons, but Lavoi looks to take what he learned in his freshman season and turn it into a promising sophomore campaign.
“Last season, I learned a lot about every game,” Lavoi said. “It was a learning experience with the speed of the game with the offense.
2013 Game Schedule
Lavoi mentioned that several of his teammates stayed in Wise during the summer and worked out. This is the kind of work ethic and leadership that the Cavs will need to be successful at the Division II level.
Lavoi could possibly be in the midst of another quarterback battle this season. Redshirt freshmen Jeremy Eubank and freshman Ty Ryans both have had good camps.
“We are tickled with our quarterback play so far,” Lusk said “Cullen [Lavoi] has matured and [is] doing fine.”
With the Mountain East Conference being known as a running conference, Lavoi will need his offensive line to protect him as he hands the ball off to sophomore Zach Cochran. Cochran ran for 301 yards on 75 attempts last season with five touchdowns.
The Cavs will need Cochran to step up after losing freshman running sensation Connery Swift who carried the ball 155 times for 671 yards and five touchdowns last season. Swift made the decision to transfer to the University of Toledo last spring.
Leading the way for Cochran will be senior fullback Sean Atkins. Atkins played high profile high school football in the state of Texas along with a season at the NCAA Division I University of Texas at San Antonio.
“He brings maturity and leadership to this football team that we need,” Lusk said about Atkins, “He’s really huge in the leadership factor to this team.”
On the defensive side of the ball Defensive Coordinator Justin Hamilton only has six players coming back from last season with starting experience. Notably, Hamilton must replace leaders Marcus Bratton and Derek Comer on the defense. Comer was the heart and the leader on defense last season. Comer led the Cavs in tackles with 87.
“Comer taught me that you have to have a fire under your butt and you have to get [it] done,” Sandoval said.
The Cavs, however, return with three important players on the defensive side with senior Shahiem Harris and sophomores Marcus Jones and Matt Sandoval. Jones collected 65 tackles last season in a non-starter role while Sandoval collected 55 tackles. Sandoval earned himself a Mid-South Defensive Player of the Week award last season with 12 solo tackles in a game.
“We are just trying to keep the tempo up,” Sandoval said. “We got to let Coach Lusk and the offense know we have their back. If they turn the ball over we got to get it back for them.”
Hamilton and his defense let teams know last year that they are going to hit hard and not give up. They will be looking for that same intensity this season as well.
“We have made a point to [the] guys that if you will hit, we will use you and if you don’t, we won’t” Hamilton said “I kind of stole a Virginia Tech’s idea [lunch pail], we bring a hammer out every day. I told them that a hammer has one value and that’s to hit things. If you do, you’re one of us and if you don’t, you’re invaluable to us.”
The Cavs defense was on the field for a lot of minutes last season and that’s something Hamilton looks to work on this season.
“We got to get off the field on third down, [and] our third down efficiency has to be better,” Hamilton said “No excuses on how we get there.”
Apart from offense and defense, the Cavs have a strong special teams. The Cavs return senior kicker Paul Melshen. Melshen’s career is 20 for 35 on field goals and has almost been automatic with extra points going 60 for 66. He broke the school record for career field goals with No. 19 of his career against Georgetown College on Nov. 14, 2012.
Senior Tyler Graham will replace Dean Hogan with the punting duties.
The Cavs will need all phases of their team this season as they make the jump to the NCAA level.
The Cavs open the season Saturday on the road at NCAA FCS Campbell University with kickoff set for 6 p.m.
“We are excited about playing in the first ballgame,” Lusk said “We are tired of beating on each other.”
The first ever Mountain East Conference game the Cavs will play in will be on the road in Buckhannon, W.Va., when the Cavs take on West Virginia Wesleyan on Sept. 7 at 6 p.m.
“The one thing we are looking forward to most is developing new relationships and new rivalries,” Lusk said about starting conference play.
The Cavs will play their first home NCAA Division II game on Sept. 14 against Mountain East Conference foe University of Charleston at 12 p.m.
For a full team roster visit uvawisecavs.com.