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Grizzlies roaring in preseason rankings

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Graduation was not kind to the Franklin College football team.

Twelve starters from last year’s nationally heralded squad have moved on. Two were among the best players in NCAA Division III and were easily among the best in Franklin history.

They were, in fact, catalysts to an explosive offense that — for four years — routinely ran roughshod over opponents.

With that in mind, it’s logical to conclude the Grizzlies are in for a down-cycle, a period during which they will fade — for an indeterminate time — from the national scene.

Except that’s not the case.

As evidenced by recent history, and preseason polls, the Grizzlies are poised to defy logic.

On Sept. 7 at Illinois Wesleyan, Franklin will kick off its 12th season under coach Mike Leonard. The Grizzlies will enter the opener ranked No. 12 in the Lindy Sports Division III preseason poll and No. 25 in the D3football.com Top 25, a recognition that guarantees nothing on the field but strongly reflects national regard for the program.

Despite the graduation losses of quarterback Jonny West and split end Kyle Linville, Division III stars who rewrote the Franklin record book at their positions, the Grizzlies are still projected to perform at an elite level.

A byproduct of sustained excellence, the expectation is also the result of having cemented a program.

Franklin’s success, after all, hasn’t been fleeting. Record-setting and all-conference players have come and gone, yet the Grizzlies have been the dominant force inside the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference for the better part of a decade.

Winners of four straight HCAC titles, the Grizzlies have claimed of the last seven overall. Conference champions automatically advance to the Division III playoffs. Franklin has advanced to the second round three straight years and was a quarterfinalist in 2008.

In total, the Grizzlies are 54-16 the past six seasons for a winning percentage of .771. They are 84-37 under Leonard’s leadership, notable because they hadn’t won a conference championship prior to his arrival, let alone been to the Division III playoffs.

Today, they are an established power looking to not only enhance their reputation but contend for a national championship.

Although the bid will continue without West and Linville, who are playing professionally in Germany, the Grizzlies appear poised for another spirited postseason run.

They still return nine offensive starters, including junior offensive lineman Austin Carlton, a Lindy Sports preseason All-America selection, and are likely to again score points in bunches with a thrill-a-minute offense renowned for passing efficiency. The main retooling work will be on the defensive side, where only two starters return.

But as the preseason rankings suggest, voters have faith in the Grizzlies’ ability to reload and contend — again — on the national stage. History justifies that faith.

The Grizzlies no doubt embrace the opportunity to live up to it.

Barton earns academic honor

Recent graduate J.T. Barton, a four-year guard on the Franklin College men’s basketball team, has been named for the second straight year to the 2013-14 Honors Court Team by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

The honor is bestowed on juniors or seniors who maintain a GPA of 3.2 or higher.

A former Center Grove standout, Barton graduated from Franklin in May with a bachelor’s degree in biology. He played in 25 games last season, with three starts, and shot 54 percent from the field.

Rick Morwick is the sports editor of the Daily Journal. Send comments to rmorwick@dailyjournal.net.

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