New ballgame for Wesley: Longtime contender tackles NJAC

Junior Jamar Baynard, a career 1,200-yard rusher, is a key figure in Wesley’s offense. (Delaware State News file photos)

Junior Jamar Baynard, a career 1,200-yard rusher, is a key figure in Wesley’s offense. (Delaware State News file photo)

DOVER — For the last decade, it’s been all or nothing for the Wesley College football team.

As an independent, the only tangible title the Wolverines could play for was the NCAA Division III national championship.

And while Wesley has been a perennial contender ­— it’s reached the semifinals six times since 2005 — the Wolverines haven’t had that chance to play for a conference crown like almost everybody else.

But that changes this fall with Wesley becoming a football-only member of the New Jersey Athletic Conference. The Wolverines play their first league game on Saturday when they open the season with a noon game at Frostburg State.

“Over the last few years, we’ve talked about the ‘brass ring’ — the national championship,” said Mike Drass, who has a record 199-54-1 in 22 seasons as Wesley’s head coach. “Now you focus more, as a team, on winning the conference championship and on the importance of the conference game.

“We’ve kind of been on both ends of the coin now. … There’s a certain natural progression that every other team in the country had but that we didn’t.”

For a few years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Wolverines were members of the Atlantic Central Football Conference. But that league never had an automatic NCAA playoff berth and its membership was always shifting.

The NJAC, on the other hand, has been around since 1957, has 10 football members and an automatic bid to the playoffs.

So while Wesley has spent the last several seasons playing an increasingly-diverse schedule, travelling the country and facing some high-caliber programs, Drass is under no illusion that being in a regional conference will make it any easier to win football games.

The Wolverines have usually gotten all they can handle from NJAC teams over the years.

“Half the teams in the league have been to nationals (playoffs),” said Drass. “It’s a bunch of coaches and teams that are used to winning. We’ve lost to Rowan, we’ve lost to Kean. No one’s looking at us saying, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I don’t think there’s any of that whatsoever.”

Wesley comes into the league on a run of 11 straight playoff appearances. A year ago, the Wolverines went 12-2 after losing to Mount Union in the national semifinals.

All those are reasons that Wesley was voted the favorite to win the NJAC title this year, receiving nine of 10 first-place votes. The Wolverines are ranked No. 5 nationally in the D3football.com poll.

Still, Wesley lost four All-Americans: Linebacker Sosthene Kapepula, defensive end Aamir Petrose, defensive tackle Payton Rose and receiver Steve Koudossou. On paper, the Wolverines return just three defensive starters.

With All-American candidate Joe Callahan a three-year starter at quarterback, Wesley will probably have to lean on its offense for a while. The Wolverines also have a career 1,200-yard rusher in junior Jamar Baynard and an 1,100-yard career receiver in tight end Kyle George.

A year ago, Wesley was ranked third nationally at 48.9 points per game.

But Drass also thinks the newcomers on defense are ready to step up up into bigger roles.

“Our defense runs as well as anybody,” he said.

Certainly, Wesley’s players aren’t going to set their sights any lower after everything the program has accomplished lately.

“It’s a different team this year,” said Callahan. “We had a ton of seniors graduate. A lot of younger guys are stepping up. But we recruit hard each year and it seems like this group of guys is really fitting in and making plays for us.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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