BY Jim Fenton
The Skyhawks, who were 5-6 a year ago, had their first practice Tuesday night with the first game at Bloomsburg University.
EASTON – Stonehill puts 2016 growing pains in its rear-view mirror
The Stonehill College football team went through a season of transition in 2016.
Head coach Robert Talley stepped down in late April to become the director of development for the athletics department at California State University-Chico, and Eli Gardner was promoted to head coach of the Skyhawks in June.
There were changes happening on the fly, and Stonehill opened the season with three consecutive losses, including the first two by four points each.
"We kind of had some growing pains early in the year,″ said Gardner, who opened his second training camp on Tuesday night at W.B. Mason Stadium. "We changed some things up. Coming into camp last year was really like our spring ball.
"It was really trying to adapt and get things going from an installation standpoint because we were kind of behind the eight ball.
"To lose close games (to Bloomsburg and Southern Connecticut) early, I feel if we had been able to do a little more early on and carry that to the fall instead of starting in the fall, things might have gone a different way. It was tough, but it was good for us mentally long term.″
Stonehill rebounded from the 0-3 start, winning five of the final eight games to go 5-6 and 4-5 in the Northeast-10 Conference.
The Skyhawks begin the 2017 season in Pennsylvania on Sept. 2, taking on Bloomsburg.
Gardner welcomed 100 players to training camp, including 35 sophomores and 30 freshmen.
After getting hired two months before the first practice last year, Gardner has had the full offseason to get ready for the '17 season.
"It was huge in terms of preparation, having to do a lot of things from scratch last year, it was time consuming,″ said Gardner. "I've been able to spend more time on X's and O's in the offseason, get the practice planning done.
"There's things nobody can prepare you for unless you go through them and hopefully we're a year the wiser this year for having gone through it last year.″
Stonehill, which plays its home opener Sept. 9 against Southern Connecticut State, should have a productive offense with key returning players at the skill positions.
Senior quarterback Matt Foltz, who was bothered by an ailing throwing shoulder a year ago, is back after throwing for 2,058 yards and 11 touchdowns.
"Matt Foltz had a really great spring on the field and as a captain,″ said Gardner of the player who has been in the lineup since 2014. "He's done a great job with the offense and the team in general.
"It's crazy to think how much football he's played, starting the last three games as a freshman and been the guy ever since.″
Sophomore wide receiver Andrew Jamiel caught 91 passes for 843 yards and seven touchdowns to earn rookie of the year honors in the NE-10.
"If someone told you he'd have 90 catches as a freshman, they're a liar,″ said Gardner. "But having him for a year, nothing surprises me. He's near impossible to cover in practice. He's football smart beyond his years.″
Tight end Kaleb Lutton, who had 44 catches for 504 yards to earn All-NE-10 honors, also returns.
The Skyhawks have depth at running back, led by Mike Cordova, who was leading the NE-10 in rushing before getting injured early in the second half of the season. He finished with 626 yards in eight games.
"I'm pretty confident,″ said Gardner. "I think we're a really tough team to defend, especially if our running game gets going.″
The defense lost all-conference selections Ryan Doherty, a linebacker, and Andrew Kibarian, an end.
The top returnee is captain and safety Nick Bona, who had a team-high 76 tackles and picked off two passes.
"He's like a quarterback of our defense,″ said Gardner.
Silver Lake Regional High graduate Matt Haite of Kingston, who made the all-rookie team, is back after making 10-of-14 field goals and 24-of-25 extra points.
"We're (physically) stronger than we were last year as a team and that's tribute to coach (Mark) Zabicki and the work they've done,″ said Gardner. "We're definitely more experienced than we were in areas last year.
"We are deeper than we've been. I don't think there's as big a drop-off from the one's and the two's as in the past. It'll lead to good competition.″