Sometime this week, the Lone Star Conference should recognize its top performers from the 2010 football season. And for the first time in several years, the list of North Division notables figures to have a decidedly orange tint to it.
East Central University, which wrapped up an historic campaign Saturday at West Texas A&M, should be well-represented — especially on defense — on the All-North Division squad, and Tim McCarty — who coached the Tigers in 2004 and 2005 and returned in 2009 — looks like a shoo-in as North Coach of the Year.
After being picked to finish last in the North this fall on the heels of the first 0-11 season in school and conference history in 2009, the Tigers bounced back from an 0-3 start to win five of their next seven games. They finished 5-1 against divisional rivals to earn a share of their first-ever North title, and their defense — which allowed fewer yards than any in the division and led the entire LSC in interceptions, takeaways and sacks going into Saturday’s season finale — was a major reason.
Sophomore defensive end Armonty Bryant — the LSC leader in sacks with 10 — and ball-hawking junior cornerback Dontae Smith — who shares the league lead in interceptions with six — each had two touchdowns this season, and they combined for five Player of the Week Awards (three by Bryant, including one for his play on special teams in a Week 10 win at Texas A&M-Commerce) over the past nine weeks. Bryant and Smith are the clear front-runners for North Defensive Player of the Year, and this is one season when nobody could argue with the LSC naming co-winners of the award.
In addition to Bryant and Smith, ECU figures to land at least four (and as many as seven or eight) players on the first-team all-North defense, and all 11 of the Tigers’ starting defenders could receive at least honorable mention.
Freshman free safety Markell Walker, who has a school-record 100-yard interception return and a 39-yard punt return for a touchdown to his credit this season, should be a first-team choice, along with sophomore strong safety Norris Wrenn — the Tigers’ only all-conference pick on defense a season ago and the third member of this year’s unit to earn Player of the Week honors.
Cornerback Austin Daniels, who combined with Smith to give ECU the North’s top set of cover corners, is one of the league leaders in passes defended and could complete a first-team sweep for the Tiger secondary.
Linebackers Ryan Madison (one of only two seniors who started on defense for ECU this fall) and Jameel Whitney (who started 11 games as a freshmen) also had outstanding seasons and could earn first-team honors, and defensive end Lonnell Rice, nose tackle Erik Howell and linebackers Kerel James and Amos Cherry all made their share of big plays during the season.
On offense, the Tigers don’t figure to make as big a haul, but wideout Zack Patteson — an all-conference selection as a sophomore last year — is second among all North receivers in yardage and third in yards per game this fall and appears to be a lock to make the first time. ECU could also get another all-conference choice or two from an offensive line that had three new starters this fall and got better with every game.
As happy as McCarty, his coaches and his players have to be with their just-completed season, though, the biggest smile on the ECU campus these days might belong to athletic director Brian DeAngelis. For the first time in recent memory, the cries of “wait ‘til next year” that have become an annual rite of passage for Tiger fans at the end of each football season since the program joined NCAA Division II in 1994 will have a ring of confidence this year.
“It’s been a blast, not only because of the winning but because of the excitment it’s generated,” DeAngelis said when asked about his reaction to the dramatic turnaround by McCarty’s young squad in 2010. “I just felt right away that Tim was the guy we needed to get this thing headed in the right direction, and it’s happened.
“His philosophy and mine are the same, and it’s meshed,” he added. “I’m extremely excited. It’s exactly the same thing we want to happen in basketball, baseball and other sports all the way through the department.”
In just his fourth year at the helm, DeAngelis is confident he has all of the Tiger athletic programs headed in the right direction, adding that the accomplishments of the football team this fall weren’t as big a shock to him as they were to people who weren’t as close to McCarty’s program.
“When you spend time with Tim and his staff, you’re not surprised,” he explained. “You see the emphasis that was put on recruiting (the Tigers had 15 starters this season who weren’t on the roster in 2009) and the game preparation, and I’m not surprised we made this jump this fast.”
Despite a vigorous improvements program spearheaded by DeAngelis over the past couple of years, ECU still lags behind most other LSC schools in facilities available to its athletes. Still, McCarty and his staff were able to attract an outstanding recruiting class to Ada in 2010, and DeAngelis said this season should be a sign of good things to come down for the football program and for ECU athletics as a whole.
“I think it showed we CAN do it,” he said. “Softball had a nice run last year, and football is high-profile and they’ve had a good run this year.
“We CAN be competitive at this level, and now we’re going into a (new) conference (for the 2011-2012 school year) with schools just like us,” DeAngelis said. “We’re not going into the new league limping — we’re going in as the LSC North champion and with some momentum, and that’s great.”
DeAngelis said he is already starting to see a “trickle-down effect” to other sports as a result of the football team’s success this fall.
“We got a great crowd for the “Meet the Tigers” (exhibition men’s basketball game) against OBU (at the Kerr Center earlier this month), and I think a lot of that comes from football,” he said. “It’s definitely had a trickle-down effect.”
Although ECU failed to win a football game last season, the team showed steady improvement late in the season, losing a 27-26 heartbreaker at Southeastern in the season finale when a two-point conversion in the final seconds failed and blowing double-digit leads in losses to Southwestern and (2009 North champion) Texas A&M-Commerce.
DeAngelis said the effort McCarty’s club showed last season as the losses mounted helped lay the foundation for the Tigers’ run to the North title this year.
“You could see it in the Southeastern game,” he recalled. “If we make a two-point conversion we win that game, and that was a Southeastern squad that had a pretty good year last year. That shows the kind of character these kids have and the kind of character these coaches instill in them.
“That carried over into the spring and preseason, and coming into next year the momentum should be even stronger,” DeAngelis added. “The program should be easier to sell this year than it was last year, and with the job Coach McCarty and his staff are doing, I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t continue.”