After going 7-4 last year, the Wayne State football team will try to make the Division II playoffs for the first time since 2011.
The Warriors started the 2016 season 1-1, before going on a six-game winning streak. From there, Wayne State dropped their final three games, including games against No. 22 ranked Ferris State and GLIAC champion Grand Valley State University.
Warriors Head Coach Paul Winters said he believes one game, in particular, could have changed the Warriors fortunes last season.
"If we finish that last game [versus GVSU] we beat the conference champs, we're 8-3 and we're probably a playoff team,” Winters said.
Senior Wide Receiver Manny Mendoza said injuries and stiff competition late in the season were major factors in the team losing its last three games of the 2016 season.
"We did play three really good teams historically, and we also had a couple of key guys [fullback Garrett Wiska and running back Demetrius Stinson] go down,” Mendoza said. “It played a role, I think, in those last three games."
This season, the Warriors will look to replace 22 seniors from the class of 2016. No unit was hit harder by graduation than the offensive line, who lost four starters from last year's team.
A strength of the Warriors offense is at running back where seniors Romello Brown and Demetrius Stinson, and junior Deiontae Nicholas should see playing time in the backfield.
Brown rushed for 1,564 yards and scored 16 touchdowns last season, while Stinson and Nicholas combined to rush for 994 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The anchor in the backfield for WSU is junior quarterback Donovan Zezula. Zezula has started 21 of his first 22 games as a Warrior and threw 14 touchdown passes last year.
Zezula and Nicholas were named offensive team captains while senior safety Ronnie Brant, senior Dustin Carlin and junior linebacker Anthony Pittman were named defensive team captains.
According to WSU Athletics, each player is a first-year captain.
This season, Wayne State will play six home games, including four night games that kickoff at 6 p.m.
Senior cornerback James Howard said, in addition to the extra preparation time, there's just something special about playing night games.
"It energizes the entire team,” Howard said. “Everyone just gets pumped for night games."
Two of WSU’s biggest games of the season will take place on Sept. 30 with a 3 p.m. kickoff at Ferris State, and on Oct. 7, they host GVSU at 6 p.m. Both opponents are ranked in the top five nationally in most preseason rankings.
One week later, on Oct. 14, Northwood University comes to Tom Adams Field for WSU's 81st Homecoming Game. Missing from the Warriors schedule for the first time since 1969 is longtime rival Hillsdale College.
During the offseason, the Chargers were one of five former GLIAC schools who joined the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.
This season, Howard said, one of the keys to success for the Warriors is getting an early lead on opponents.
"It's motivation to the entire team, [and] it lets you know how good you really are and how well you prepare in practice," Howard said. “It builds swagger for the defense and the offense feeds off of that."
The Warriors begin the 2017 season on the road against Walsh University on Sept. 2. Their first home game is on Sept. 9 versus Indianapolis University.