Wittenberg University football coach Joe Fincham runs the Tigers offensive linemen through a drill during the first day of practice on Wednesday at Edwards-Maurer Field in Springfield. The Tigers, ranked 14th in the d3football.com preseason poll, have won seven of the last nine North Coast Athletic Conference titles. Michael Cooper/CONTRIBUTED

College Football: Wittenberg gunning for third straight NCAC title

Tigers are ranked 14th in the nation

A thunderstorm hit Springfield about an hour into the first of the Tigers’ two split-squad practices on Wednesday evening, forcing the team into the nearby HPER Center. After the storm blew over, the second practice began after a more than 30-minute delay.

»RELATED: Big recruiting class for Tigers

“It’s a bummer, for sure,” said Fincham during the delay. “You can’t lose sleep over things you can’t control, and weather is a part of football. It’s just no fun when its Day 1.”

The football team has 145 players in camp this season, Fincham said. The program typically splits practice early in camp to better evaluate the incoming players, he said.

“With so many kids, it gives us a chance to evaluate our younger guys, plus it gives our older guys time to mentor them a little bit,” Fincham said.

Fincham is entering his 23rd season as head coach, where he’s won 201 games and 15 North Coast Athletic Conference titles.

Last season, the Tigers completed their 20th undefeated regular season, including its sixth under Fincham. The Tigers advanced to the NCAA Division III playoffs for the second straight season, falling to Frostburg State (Md.) 35-7 in the first round.

The Tigers return virtually all of their skill-position players this season, including three-year starting quarterback Jake Kennedy. The Bellefontaine High School graduate threw for 2,674 yards and 24 touchdowns while completing nearly 60 percent of his passes last season.

“When you have a quarterback that’s taken snaps in big games, you can’t put a price on experience,” Fincham said.

The Tigers also return leading rusher DeShawn Sarley (767 yards, six TDs) and their top three wide receivers in Liam Duncan (34 catches, 623 yards, 9 TDs), Kenton Ridge High School grad Jeff Tiffner (37-570-2) and Bryce Bailey (37-449-4). Return specialist and running back Nick Kendall is also back this season.

However, the Tigers will look to replace four starting offensive linemen.

The defense returns its leading tackler in linebacker Terrance Crowe, a Springfield High School graduate. However, the defense has holes to fill on the line and at safety, Fincham said. The Tigers lost NCAC Defensive Player of the Year Chandler Ferko, a defensive end, to graduation.

Wittenberg opens the season at home against Westminster College (Pa.) at 1 p.m. on Sept. 1. The Tigers traveled to New Wilmington, Pa., last season and beat the Titans 20-14 in what would be Wittenberg’s closest game of the season. The Titans are coached by former Wittenberg assistant coach Scott Benzel.

“They’re as athletic as anyone we played last season,” Fincham said. “It was a great game. I don’t think this year is going to be any different.”

The Tigers, who enter the season ranked No. 14 in the d3football.com poll, will hold their annual Red and White scrimmage at 7 p.m. Aug. 18 at Edwards-Maurer Field.

Thank you for reading the Springfield News-Sun and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.

Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Springfield News-Sun. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.