BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. - The West Liberty University football team slotted in at No. 7 when the Mountain East Conference coaches revealed their 2014 Preseason Poll on Friday afternoon.
Defending champion Shepherd, unbeaten in MEC play a year ago during the league's inaugural season of competition, was established as the preseason favorite to defend its crown during MEC Football Media Day festivities.
Veteran WLU head coach Roger Waialae carries a 56-44 (.560) record into his 10th season and believes his Hilltoppers have the potential to emerge as a legitimate dark horse contender.
There are 17 starters and 42 lettermen returning to campus next week, including the bulk of a defensive unit ranked among the nation's Top 25 a year ago. Included among the defensive returnees is 2012 All-American safety Marco Ricchetti, back for his senior year after redshirting last fall. All-MEC safety Andrew Faraimo also returns along with Preseason All-America punter Griff Yocum.
The West Liberty offense struggled to find the end zone in 2013 but a trio of two-year starters are back to bolster the offensive line and Brandon Schroeder, a 1,000-yard receiver in 2012, has also returned for his senior year after sitting out last season. The combination of a revamped offensive system with Waialae taking over offensive coordinator responsibilities and an influx of new faces at several skill positions is expected to put the teeth back in the Black and Gold attack.
While Shepherd has never lost an MEC contest, Coach Monte Cater and his Rams weren't a unanimous pick to defend their conference title. Shepherd had 7 first-place votes and 95 points in the coaches' poll but Concord was close behind with 3 first-place votes and 91 points. Charleston picked up the other first-place vote and was third with 84 points.
Glenville State was fourth with 67 points, followed by West Virginia Wesleyan (60) and Urbana (58). West Liberty and Notre Dame tied for seventh at 44 points with Fairmont State (33) at No. 9. UVA-Wise (15) and West Virginia State (14) rounded out the 11-team list.
The MEC season kicks off under the lights on Sept. 4 when Fairmont State hosts Notre Dame. The rest of the league swings into action on the afternoon of Sept. 6, including West Liberty's home opener against defending MEC champion Shepherd.