The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

WestConn not sure what to expect as season opens

- By Paul Doyle paul.doyle@hearstmedi­

Joe Loth’s head coaching career spans two decades, including the past nine years at Western Connecticu­t.

Loth has coached teams that have qualified for the postseason and he’s overseen rebuilding projects. He has, it seems, seen it all.

But as he embarks on the 2021 season, Loth is encounteri­ng a new chapter in his career. Like programs throughout the country, WestConn did not compete last season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Players worked out in pods of 10, but there no team activities, no 7-on-7 drills, no group activities.

Coming off a 8-3 season than ended with a loss to WPI in the New England Bowl Series, WestConn was on hold — a number of seniors graduated without competing in 2020 while a class of freshmen arrived and, well, waited.

This year, there’s another freshman class on campus as Loth prepared for Saturday’s season opener against William Paterson (5 p.m.). Integratin­g two classes of players who have not appeared in a college game with a group of upperclass­men who have been itching for competitio­n has been odd for Loth.

That’s why he has no sense of how good his team will this season. WestConn was picked to finished second behind Framingham State in the Massachuse­tts State Collegiate Athletic Conference preseason coaches’ poll, but that’s based mostly on tradition — Loth’s team is 23-8 over the past three seasons.

“I’m super curious in where we are at a program now, because we have so many young guys playing for the first time,” Loth said. “It’s just really interestin­g. I’ve never been as a head coaching, not knowing and having less of a feel of where we are at than I do right now.”

Is Loth optimistic? Evaluating his team last week, Loth caught himself as he talked about the challenge of the past year — “I don’t want to sound to pessimisti­c,” he said — and insisted he truly has no sense of just how good WestConn can be this season.

Of course, opponents are in the same spot. Teams will be evolving as the season progresses.

“I think we have the chance to be a talented football team,” Loth said. “It’s my job as a coach, in a lot of ways, to figure out how good we are Week 1 or where are we Week 1, and how do we develop our team as we go. That’s the big challenge I see.”

Loth said the team will rely heavily on the more experience­d players, both on the field and off. Among them are two fifth-year senior receivers: Jahzarri Mullings from Bridgeport and Walter Crain from Windsor.

Mullings, a Harding graduate, had 13 receptions and was the primary kickoff return man in 2019.

“Our older guys, obviously, know what to expect,” Loth said. “We have a bunch of younger guys who have never been through this before . ... It’s such an unusual mix of guys who have no idea what’s going on. Like, pregame. How do we do pregame? Even if they were here as a recruit, they never had pregame. They never had a game. They never had camp. So it’s been an interestin­g fall.”

Leadership? Loth said that’s generally learned from older players.

“Older guys teach the younger guys,” Loth said. “This is how we practice, this is how we act, this is how we come to the coach’s office to watch film. Leadership-wise, we still have some of those guys on the team, but we only have a handful of guys in that role. We’re really trying to put a lot of leadership on those guys to really direct our team because we do have some of those guys, but we don’t have as many as we usually do.”

WestConn starts the season with three home games. A test will come on Oct. 16, when WestConn plays at Framingham State.

“We’ll adapt as we move along,” Loth said. “It’s just going to be an interestin­g year.”

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