Coming off an 8-2 season that ended in a close loss to Delaware Valley in the Centennial-MAC Bowl Series, the team huddles up before a scrimmage earlier in August. Photo courtesy of Muhlenberg College Athletics

Nick Palladino ‘17, former Muhlenberg football quarterback and captain, spent his four years on the field rewriting Muhlenberg and Centennial Conference record books. He broke and holds records for career passing yards, career offensive yards, and career completions—to name a few. Under Palladino and powerful players like Ryan Delaney ‘17 and Nick Lamb ‘17, the Muhlenberg football program saw little else than success and wins during those four years.

But like with every college program, every four years or so, teams change over, prominent players graduate and coaches begin to build from scratch. While losing Palladino and Delaney may hit Muhlenberg football hard, that in no way means that the Mules aren’t prepared to take on this upcoming season.

That begins with an incoming senior class that has spent years preparing for their moment in the spotlight, for their chance to prove that one player, however good he may be, does not make the team. Two of those players are Nick Savant ‘18 and Matthew Stickney ‘18, a running back and h-back respectively, and this year’s team captains. The decision to name these two as captains was unanimous by the team and coaching staff.

“I think that’s just a culmination of their dedication and efforts over the last three years,” said assistantcoach Josh Carter. “They both faced adversity with different injuries that they’ve had to overcome and they’ve been very productive for us. They lead our team, vocally and through their actions and that showed when our team voted.”

Savant returns after leading the Centennial Conference in rushing yards, yards per game, yards per attempt and touchdowns in 2016. His over-1,500 yard performance last season was only more impressive after seeing how the running back worked his way from a season-ending injury after playing only one game his freshman year. Stickney, also coming back from an injury in 2015, finished last season third on the team in receptions and fourth in rushing yards.

But Savant and Stickney are not the only productive names returning to the field this season. According to Carter, there are a bunch of returning guys who are ready to step up and step out of the shadow of Delaney and Lamb. “The biggest thing those guys can do is come back and play their game and stay within themselves. They have to do more by default simply because now they’re captains. That’s where the team comes in; it’s not just
those guys, it’s also other guys stepping up their game.”

While most of the offseason and spring ball have been dedicated to exactly that, this year’s team is full of fresh faces—promising freshmen, talented transfers, those finally capitalizing on their chance at the spotlight, and a select group of players changing positions for the good of the team. According to Donnelly, there’s a lot of new faces, a lot of new guys looking to have “stand up years” that haven’t had the chance yet. One of these “new”
players is transfer Ryan Curtiss ‘20. Curtiss, a decorated high school dual-athlete, comes the Mules as an h-back after a successful freshman season with Division II Pace University.

Kyle Wilczynski ‘18, Kwasi Ampomah ‘20, and George DiFiore ‘18 are just a few of the players who have stepped up and literally changed their game for the potential good of the team. Ampomah moved to outside linebacker after an excellent freshman season as an inside linebacker. Wilczynski and DiFiore’s moves are more drastic than Ampomah’s, with both seniors moving positions afters three years of experience elsewhere in what
Donnelly called “a one year experiment.”

Matt Gibbon ’19 (front) and Michael Hnatkowsky ’21 (back) will split the snaps at quarterback to begin the season. Photo courtesy of Muhlenberg College Athletics

After graduating John Feaster ‘17 last spring, Donnelly knew their would be a void in the cornerback position, and DiFiore was the man to fill it. “George DiFiore, talk about unselfish and the leadership and those kinds of things, he’s played safety for three years, but this spring we lost Feaster and I told him I wanted to play some corner in the spring. It was just natural to him.”

Wilczynski, or the Wiz as Donnelly calls him, is expected to step up both on the field and in the locker room. Donnelly made the decision this season to move Wilczynski from outside linebacker to wide receiver—and his highlight reel of flashy interceptions backs that decision. In 2015, Wilczynski’s one-handed interception and subsequent 31-yard return for a touchdown against Gettysburg earned him a nomination for the Geico Play of the
Year.

“We’re expecting big things from him. He’s very physical and very big; he’s got the best hands on the team and he runs as fast as anybody,” said Donnelly. “We’ve played him on defense and now we’re going to find out if he can be one our top receivers.”

With Palladino gone, the quarterback position has been up in the air—until now. In tomorrow’s game against Wilkes University, Matt Gibbon ‘19 will walk on the field as starting quarterback. Gibbon played in four games as Muhlenberg’s number two QB, passing for a total of 141 yards. But that game will definitely see two quarterbacks, as Michael Hnatkowsky ‘21 will split the game with Gibbon.

Hnatkowsky, a player Donnelly described as someone coming in to compete right away, has a reputation to uphold. A four year starter and two year captain in high school, he graduated from William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, Pa. While there, Hnatkowsky threw for 6,172 yards and 60 touchdowns, breaking the school records set by Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons.

One notable absence this season will be that of Coach Donnelly. Diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia, Donnelly needs a bone marrow transplant, and he knew that, when the time came, he would need to leave his team and work from the sidelines. While most of the team, including Donnelly himself, believed that would happen much later in the season, the Mules will have to take the field without their head coach for the first time in 20 years. He will receive his marrow donation from his daughter sometime in the coming week, and will have to spend the majority of the season in recovery. Current athletic director and former offensive coordinator Corey Goff will be filling in for Donnelly.

Head coach Mike Donnelly was present at the Mules’ first practice, but will miss much of the season while receiving treatment for acute monocytic leukemia. AD Corey Goff will coach the team in his absence. Photo courtesy of Muhlenberg College Athletics

With what is shaping up to be yet another solid roster during Donnelly’s tenure, the Mules will strive for another outstanding season. Johns Hopkins may seem like the toughest competitor, but the coaches and the team will tell you different. As Donnelly has engrained in his ​​players and staff, “the toughest team is always the next team we’re going to play and right now that’s Wilkes.”

The Mules open the 2017 season tomorrow versus Wilkes at Scotty Wood Stadium at 1:00.

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Alyssa Hertel

Alyssa Hertel is the current Managing Editor of The Muhlenberg Weekly. She is a Media & Communication major with double minors in Creative Writing and International Relations. An avid fan of both perfectly average sports teams and political debates, she hopes to pursue journalism as a career, focusing in either sports or politics.

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