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UMAC coaches pick teams to beat

The Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) will have a new look for football for the second consecutive year, adding four schools from the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SLIAC) to make a nine-team league that will compete in two divisions for 2009. Following a pre-season coaches' poll, Northwestern College and Greenville College were predicted to win their respective north and south divisions, with each being a unanimous decision.

North Division

Northwestern, the reigning UMAC champion, will be riding the coattails of an experienced team on both offense and defense after a successful 9-2 campaign in 2008 that came one win shy of earning a Pool B bid to the NCAA tournament. Ninth year head coach Kirk Talley will rely on the 2008 UMAC Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year in quarterback Zach Tarter and linebacker Kyle Nash to attain the goal of repeating the Eagles' title. Tarter headlines an offense that returns its starting quarterback, tailbacks and top three receivers. Northwestern's defense led the UMAC in total defense in 2008, holding opponents to an average of 311 yards per contest.

Martin Luther College, who finished 2008 with a 7-3 record, earned 12 points in the pre-season poll. Knights head coach Doug Lange returns 17 starters from last season, including ten on the offensive side of the ball from a squad that set seven school records in 2008. Running back Aaron Voss headlines a trio of returning rushers from last season. Junior quarterback Greg Holzhueter returns for his third year under center. Matt Rothe, the UMAC's tackles leader in 2008, returns to command the Knights' defensive ship.

Crown College, recipient of 10 points and third place in the north division poll, experienced its second consecutive winning season in 2008 that included a second-place conference finish. The Storm offense returns eight starters.

They include UMAC All-Conference winners Drew Milner (wide receiver) and Nick Skumatz (offensive lineman). Milner is Crown's all-time record holder in receiving yards and touchdowns. Defensively, head coach John Auer welcomes back six starters, led by All-UMAC cornerback Luke Urbaniak.

The College of St. Scholastica received eight points in the poll, which is good for fourth place. Under head coach Greg Carlson, the Saints enter their second season of competition after going 1-7 in their inaugural campaign of 2008. Quarterback Jake Olson returns to the field after leading St. Scholastica to the 49th best pass offense in the NCAA Division III last season. UMAC First Team All-Conference wide receiver Mike VanMassenhove also returns. The Saints defense is anchored by defensive tackle Doug Moore and linebacker J.P. Leary.

Rounding out the UMAC's North Division poll was the University of Minnesota, Morris, who received four points from the league's coaches. The Cougars, under then-second year head coach Todd Hickman, went 3-6 in 2008. This season, Hickman continues to emerge with more of his recruits, as 30 new faces have donned a Cougars helmet. Morris returns two UMAC First Team All-Conference performers, including running back Robert Koranda, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in his freshman campaign. Senior Theo Powell, who was a big reason for Koranda's success, is one of five returning offensive linemen for the Cougars.

South Division

Greenville College was the unanimous choice to win the UMAC South Division after a 6-4 season in 2008. Building a program over the last four seasons has taken time and energy for head coach Eric Hehman, but Hehman and his coaching staff are beginning to see the fruits of their efforts. This year's squad features a group of 19 starters that is headlined by NCAA Division III Pre-season All-American tight end Zach Friedrich. Greenville's defense led the nation in takeaways during the regular season and was also ranked second nationally in interceptions. 2008 SLIAC First Team All-Conference defensive lineman Alex Holmes is expected to be a playmaker once again while Holmes' fellow all-conference teammate, Edgar Townsend, returns for his final campaign.

Westminster College, who associates with the UMAC for football for a second time in 2009 after joining the SLIAC - their conference for all other intercollegiate sports - for the 2008 season, earned seven points to take second in the south division poll. The Blue Jay offense has experience, led by Daniel Eidson, a first team all-conference quarterback and punter in 2009. Defensively, Westminster hopes to improve upon its 172nd place finish in the 2008 NCAA total defensive rankings. Linebacker Clark Roberts returns at linebacker.

Eureka College and MacMurray College each received four points in the poll to tie for third place in the UMAC South Division. Both teams welcome new head coaches to the field, as Kurt Barth and Jake Box take over for a pair of programs that hope to rebound with winning seasons. Eureka returns quarterback Nick Lindsey. The Red Devils will also welcome all-conference linebacker Matt Knake back to the defensive lineup.

MacMurray's squad will include 40 new faces in 2009, hoping to improve off of last year's 4-6 record. First team all-conference linebacker Tobias Alaribe, returns to lead the Highlanders on defense. Coach Box returns four of the five starting offensive lineman from 2008 to pave the way for running backs Brian Clay, Gio Martin and Chris Waterkotte.

Following the divisional model in 2009, the UMAC will move to a one-division league in 2010, where all nine teams will battle for one conference championship. Beginning in 2011, the UMAC will receive an automatic qualifier from the NCAA, awarding the league champion a berth in the NCAA tournament.

All nine UMAC schools will be in action beginning on Sept. 5, with conference play beginning on Sept. 26. Dome Day, the UMAC's pinnacle football event that features five games in one day at the H.H.H. Metrodome in Minneapolis, is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 30.