Thursday, August 2, 2018

Wingate Picked to Finish Second in SAC, Land 10 Preseason All-Conference Spots

ROCK HILL, SC - The defending South Atlantic Conference champion Wingate University Bulldogs have been picked to finish second in the league's preseason poll, voted on by the conference's head coaches. The SAC preseason poll was released Wednesday morning, with the Bulldogs finishing three points behind first-place Carson-Newman.

The Eagles are the preseason favorites, collecting 52 points and four first-place votes, followed closely by Wingate with 49 points and three first-place votes. Catawba and Newberry follow, with Tusculum checking in at number five and receiving one first-place vote. Lenoir-Rhyne is sixth, with Limestone and Mars Hill tying for seventh with 20 votes.

Wingate is coming off a historic 2017 season, finishing 9-2 overall with a 6-1 record in league play. The Bulldogs got off to their best start in program history, winning their first nine games of the year. Wingate was ranked as high as 12th in the AFCA top 25, the highest ranking in program history, while also checking in at number one in the official NCAA Division II region rankings for the first time in program history. The Bulldogs start the 2018 season ranked 24th in the College Football America preseason top 30.

Wingate earned its second NCAA Division II playoff bid in program history in 2017, while also hosting a playoff game for the second time ever and first since 2010. The Bulldogs fell to West Florida in the opener, who went on to play in the national championship game. Wingate finished the season ranked 24th in the AFCA top 25.

The Bulldogs return plenty of firepower from last year's championship team, including 10 players who earned preseason All-SAC honors when the teams were announced Thursday morning, with five players earning first-team accolades. Junior All-American BJ Muckelvene leads the way, earning first-team honors as a wide receiver and a return specialist. Offensive lineman Connor Baroniunas also earns first-team honors on the offensive side, with defensive lineman Auntrell Mack, linebacker Robbie Wallace and punter Christopher Birozes earning first-team accolades on the defensive side. Wide receiver JT Stokes earns second-team preseason All-SAC honors, along with offensive lineman Austin May and long snapper Tucker Mullis. Defensive lineman Cardell Rawlings earns second-team honors on the defensive side, along with defensive back Kam Johnson.

Muckelvene earned second-team All-American honors from the AFCA during his sophomore season in 2017. He led the SAC in punt returns (23.7 yards per return) and punt return touchdowns (three). On the NCAA charts, Muckelvene finished second in punt return touchdowns. He had punt returns for scores against Johnson C. Smith (73 yards), Carson-Newman (63) and Newberry (85). Muckelvene also had 14 kick-off returns for 287 yards. Muckelvene caught 23 passes for 394 yards and four touchdowns while rushing 16 times for 232 yards and one score.

Baroniunas earned second-team All-SAC accolades during 2017. He helped the Bulldogs finish second in the conference in rushing yards, averaging 212.8 yards per contest. Wingate finished fourth in total yards per game. Baroniunas started all 11 games at right guard for the SAC champion Bulldogs in 2017.

Mack earned first team all-conference accolades in 2017. He piled up 46 tackles on the season, with 5.5 tackles for loss and one sack. He added four quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery, while also forcing two fumbles. Mack collected 13 tackles and forced two fumbles in the victory over Carson-Newman.

Wallace led the conference with 9.5 tackles per game and was the only player in the league with over 100 tackles, notching 104 on the season to earn second-team All-SAC and All-Region accolades. Wallace added 6.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks with four QB hurries and two forced fumbles. He also had seven passes defended, six breakups and an interception. Wallace collected double-digit tackles in seven of 11 contests, highlighted by a 15-tackle effort in the UNC Pembroke victory including a pair of tackles for loss.

Birozes earned Academic All-America honors for the second time in 2017, after earning recognition in 2015. Birozes averaged 39 yards per punt on 43 punts last season. He placed 15 punts inside the 20 while notching four punts of at least 50 yards including a season-best 61 yarder in the NCAA playoff game against West Florida.

Stokes earns preseason all-conference accolades for the first time in his career. He finished second on the team with 24 catches, while also finishing second on the squad with 316 receiving yards. Stokes also had seven rushes for 59 yards and a touchdown. He had a season-long 67-yard reception in the Newberry win while notching back-to-back four-reception games against Limestone and Tusculum.

May earns second-team preseason all-conference honors. The senior started all 11 games at left tackles for the SAC champion Bulldogs last season. He has started every game during his Bulldog career. In addition to helping Wingate finish second in the SAC in rushing yards last season, May and the offensive line allowed just 15 sacks in 10 regular season contests.

Rawlings ranked third on the team with 54 tackles last season. He ranked second on the squad with 8.0 tackles for loss with a team-best 4.5 sacks on the year. Rawlings ranked in the top 10 in the league in both categories while also piling up a team-best 13 quarterback hurries to go along with two forced fumbles. Rawlings had 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in the Newberry victory.

Johnson ranked fourth on the team with 47 tackles in 2017, earning second-team All-SAC honors. He collected 5.0 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Johnson added four passes defended, two break-ups and a pair of interceptions. He had seven tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception in the Mars Hill win, while collecting a tackle for loss and interception in the following game against Newberry.

Mullis appeared in every game as the long snapper as a true freshman in 2017. He did not have a bad snap in 11 games, while the 'Dogs also did not allow a blocked punt all season. A SAC Commissioner's Honor Roll student, Mullis is also a member of the Wingate track & field team. 

Wingate will open the 2018 season with back-to-back home games under the lights at Irwin Belk Stadium. The Bulldogs kick things off Thursday night, Aug. 30, hosting Johnson C. Smith at 7 p.m. on ESPN3. Wingate hosts Fayetteville State the following Saturday, Sept. 8 at 6 p.m. on ESPN3. The Bulldogs open league play the following weekend, traveling to Carson-Newman to face the Eagles at 7 p.m. The SAC home opener is the following weekend, Sept. 22 when the 'Dogs host Lenoir-Rhyne on Family Weekend at 6 p.m.