TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN

BRIDGEPORT – Despite losing the bulk of its defense, Shepherd is the preseason pick to capture the Mountain East Conference.

The Rams collected 95 points and was picked to finish first on seven ballots.

“I was kind of shocked we were picked to win the (MEC),” Shepherd coach Monte Cater said at Friday’s football media day. “We lost 18 seniors, mostly on the defensive side of the ball.

“Our kids are up to the challenge, though, and have worked very hard during the offseason.”

The Rams went 11-1 overall and 9-0 in league games last season. They return seven starters on offense and five on defense from a team that captured the MEC championship and advanced to the quarterfinals in the NCAA Division II playoffs. Shepherd return its entire backfield – quarterback Jeff Ziemba and the running back tandem of Allen Cross and Jabre Lolley, the 2013 MEC Offensive Freshman of the Year.

The Rams, who led the country in rushing defense in each of the past three seasons, graduated several significant pieces of its defense, but still returns three of their top four tacklers, including sophomore linebacker Octavius Thomas.

Special teams should be strong for Shepherd, as first team All-MEC kicker Ryan Earls and All-America return man C.J. Davis are back.

West Virginia Wesleyan was tabbed to finish fifth in the 11-team conference, which enters its second year of existence.

The Bobcats, who were picked to finish last in the 2013 preseason poll, went 5-5 overall and 5-4 in league games under first-year coach George Shehl last season.

Quarterback Jeremy Musselman will return for his senior season after throwing for 2,490 yards and 20 touchdowns in nine games for the Bobcats last year. Musselman also has one of his top target from last season back in Zach Schademan.

On defense, West Virginia Wesleyan brings back eight starters, including linebackers Mike Savage (74 tackles) and Desmond Holley, along with cornerback Antonio Harris.

Concord, which returns all 11 starters on offense, was picked to finish second, followed by Charleston, Glenville State, Wesleyan, Urbana, Notre Dame College, West Liberty, Fairmont State, U.Va.-Wise and West Virginia State.