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With much of last year's defense returning in 2016, Penn sprint football will look to challenge for the title that eluded them last year.

Photo: Arabella Uhry / The Daily Pennsylvanian

Outside of those involved with Penn sprint football, not many expected the Quakers to be contenders in the 2015 CSFL title race.

Yet, come late October, there they were. Although Penn ultimately fell short of a championship, a bevy of returning starters has the team clamoring for another shot for glory.

The Quakers jumped out to a quick 2-0 start in 2015 with wins over Franklin Pierce and Post prior to their first military academy game at Navy. The Midshipmen delivered Penn its first loss of the season with a 29-14 result, although for most of the game the score was within one possession. Rebounding with a win at Cornell and against Mansfield, the Red and Blue entered Army week knowing they were in control of their own destiny.

The opportunity was owed in part to Franklin Pierce, which had defeated Navy in early October thanks to Ravens defenders picking off seven passes across two Midshipmen quarterbacks. If Penn would win out against Army, which would finish the year undefeated, and now-defunct Princeton, it would guarantee at least a share of the CSFL title.

The Quakers and Black Knights played a close, contested game in which senior quarterback and CSFL co-MVP Mike McCurdy found Jack Epstein with just over four minutes remaining to tie the game at 10. After Penn missed a 49-yard field goal with four seconds on the clock, each team converted a field goal in overtime. However, Penn missed a 37-yard field goal in double overtime and Army countered by closing the game with a field goal.

Sophomore running back Max Jones said the loss was tough in itself, but was even harder considering all of the team’s performance last season.

“I didn’t have much success with my high school team, so coming in last year and basically almost winning the championship my first year, it was so close and it really does hurt,” Jones said. “It hurts more to lose than it feels good to win.”

Penn would settle for second place alongside Navy, but the team still has its eyes set on the top of the standings. Although the Red and Blue did not ultimately capture the title, coach Bill Wagner said the team proved itself to the conference as well as the program.

“What it does, they’re going into the game knowing they can win the game, not hoping to win the game,” Wagner said. “They’ve already competed at a high level.”

Save a few impact defenders such as Stu Helgeson and Derek Shnider, much of the Penn defense remains intact from last season. Navy was the only opponent to break 20 points, as the defense was consistently stopping opponents and putting the offense in good spots.

Senior defensive back Chris Colavita thought the defense made strides last season as players continued to get familiar with one another. With so much of the unit back, he expects an even better on-field product.

“It’s the camaraderie we have,” Colavita said. “When we first started, we didn’t have that continuity as a defense. Over the past couple years, we see that everybody knows what they’re doing, everybody knows what everybody else is doing, and you can count on other people to make plays.”

Something to watch will be how the offense functions without graduated wide receiver Henry Mason, who accounted for 627 of the team’s 1,574 receiving yards and nine of 15 receiving touchdowns. Wagner says there are a few receivers the league doesn’t know about.

“They’ll know about them after Mansfield,” he said.

The obvious guess as to who takes over as the top receiver will be junior Andrew Sutton, who in 2015 was the team’s second-leading receiver behind Mason with 389 yards. However, Jones isn’t sure the Red and Blue need to be too concerned with finding the next Henry Mason.

“We’re not looking for that one person, we’re looking for the whole offense to work as one unit,” Jones said. “We have freshmen coming in [and] talented weapons.”

It could also mean Wagner opts to lean more on the run. Jones averaged 18 rushes per game as a freshman and might see more volume if no one emerges as a dominant downfield threat in the passing game.

The season opener is at Mansfield Saturday night. But lurking around the corner is Army, a game scheduled for Friday, Sept. 23 at Franklin Field. The Quakers have the date circled.

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