BY JIM FENTON
EASTON — There was disappointment on the campus of Stonehill College on the night of Oct. 18 last year.
The Skyhawks football team just missed pulling off a major upset against third-ranked New Haven, allowing a game-winning touchdown with only six seconds remaining.
It was a cruel finish to an entertaining game that was televised nationally on the CBS Sports Network as Stonehill was unable to hold a 10-point lead down the stretch.
That bitter defeat to the Chargers may have brought disappointment, but the Skyhawks' strong showing that night against a Div. 2 power was a sign of the strides they have made.
Stonehill finished the 2012 season with its first winning record (5-3) in the Northeast-10 Conference in five years and went 5-5 overall for the fourth time in six seasons.
Progress continues to be made for a program that has not had a winning season since 1996.
"I think the great thing is that expectations have increased with our players and the overall program and everybody around it,'' said Skyhawks coach Robert Talley, whose team opened training camp with its first practice Thursday night at W.B. Mason Stadium.
"From a confidence level, I really believe (nearly beating New Haven) helps. It shows our players that we can compete with the top teams in the league. We feel we let it get away.
"The players know that, week in and week out they can compete, but they also know it's going to be a struggle week in and week out.
"It just helps our kids prepare better in the offseason and over the course of the summer, having it in the back of their minds we have to be on top of our game, and if we are, we can compete with every team on our schedule.''
Stonehill opens the season with an immediate test, traveling to Pennsylvania to face nationally ranked Bloomsburg University (10-2 a year ago) on Sept. 7.
Talley welcomed 101 players to the team's first practice, a far cry from the 68 who were on hand to open his initial training camp in 2007.
The Skyhawks lost five starters on defense, including standout cornerback Jareed Gaines (second in the NE-10 with 103 tackles).
Six new starters are needed on offense, which lost wide receiver John Gomes (school-record 846 yards on 55 catches) to graduation.
"We're excited,'' said Talley, whose team plays its home opener Sept. 14 against Saint Anselm College. "We had a great senior class, so it's going to be imperative that this year's senior class really steps in. That's going to really influence how much we can pick up from where we were.
"The nice thing is we had a lot of young kids playing the last two years, so we've had some good depth in positions.''
Senior quarterback Logan Meyer returns after completing 166 passes for 2,215 yards and 20 touchdowns, and his key targets figure to be junior Nate Robitaille (32 catches, 437 yards) and sophomore Gordon McLeod (30 catches, 398 yards).
Having an experienced quarterback like Meyer, who is closing in on the school record for career passing yards, will be a key for the Skyhawks.
"It helps a lot,'' said Talley. "He had a great spring season, a great summer. He's really looking forward to it. You definitely saw him grow as the season went. We're looking forward to him having a really good year.
"He just started seeing stuff last season. We changed some things offensively, which really helped him, and the game slowed down for him. I think we need to make sure from an offensive scheme standpoint we put him in situations to be successful.''
Senior captainJustin Willis (425 yards, three touchdowns) is the top returning running back.