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It may have missed out on sole possession of the PSAC West championship last year, but California is still considered the team to beat in the division — even by Mercyhurst, the team that shared the title with the Vulcans in 2010.

“We have so much work to do to catch up to them,” Mercyhurst coach Marty Schaetzle said Monday at the conference’s media day. “There’s just so many games to go before then that I really haven’t thought about it. I know how good they are, but I just try not to think about it until we have to play them.”

Both Mercyhurst and California went 6-1 in division play last year, and the Lakers were the only PSAC West team to beat the Vulcans, who have won at least a share of the division title in each of the past six years.

In the preseason coaches’ rankings, California and Mercyhurst each received four first-place votes. Their Oct. 22 meeting could determine this year’s division title.

“They’re very well coached,” California coach John Luckhardt said of Mercyhurst. “They have a Bill Belichick approach to the game, in that they capitalize on your mistakes and don’t make many themselves, so we’ve had three pretty intense games with them (in the past three years).

“But I think this’ll be the best Slippery Rock team since (2007). I think (new) coach (Curt) Cignetti is going to make a difference at IUP. It’s going to be very intense and a very competitive year in the league.”

California went 10-2 overall in 2010, losing to Bloomsburg in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. Luckhardt said he’s optimistic about what his team can achieve this year if it stays healthy.

“We got nicked in a couple spots last year, and losing a couple key guys, especially on the offensive line, ended up having a tremendous effect on us,” Luckhardt said. “You can’t control injuries, but what you can try to do is to develop depth.”

California’s defense, which led the PSAC in rushing, passing, overall and scoring defense last year, will see eight 2010 starters return. It will also add two defensive tackles via transfers: Jason Kates, who played the 2007 season at Michigan, and Vince Manus, who is transferring from Glendale Community College in Arizona.

Pete Lalich, who redshirted last season after transferring from Virginia, will be the Vulcans’ quarterback. He’ll play behind what Luckhardt said should be a formidable offensive line.

“We’re going to be bigger up front than we’ve been,” Luckhardt said, citing eight offensive linemen the program added in the offseason.

Additional Information:

Preseason poll

A look at the PSAC West coaches’ poll, which was released Monday. First-place votes in parentheses:

1. California (4)

2. Mercyhurst (4)

3. IUP (tied)

3. Slippery Rock (tied)

5. Gannon

6. Edinboro

7. Clarion

8. Lock Haven

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