LEWISTON – Two-and-six won’t cut it this year.

Bates College football was so down for so long that moral victories were celebrated with the enthusiasm other New England Small College Athletic Conference schools reserve for championships.

In his eight first seasons at the helm, head coach Mark Harriman has guided the Bobcats’ evolution from pushover to pest. Bates doesn’t get blown out much these days. Last season, it scared the daylights out of Williams, Bowdoin and Colby. All three were among the top four teams in NESCAC. Each was lucky to escape with a win by the width of a chin strap.

None of that changes the reality that Bates won two games and lost six for the third consecutive autumn. While multiple-win seasons mark progress for a program that was in a funk for most of the 1980s and 1990s, there is nobody in camp who will be satisfied with merely playing the role of respected sparring partner for the league’s heavyweights in 2006.

“Overall, it’s a great group with great attitudes, and we feel we can compete,” said Harriman.

That’s compete, as in get over the hurdle. A year ago, Bates had Williams on the ropes before giving up a late score and losing 8-7. Bowdoin erased a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter and squirmed out of the Bobcats’ grip. Colby lost game all year but beat Bates by a single TD.

Good news: Nine defensive starters return, and three of last year’s top four tacklers return to the fold. Leading the resistance is all-conference defensive end Terence Ryan, who led NESCAC with 10 quarterback sacks.

Anthony Begon, a junior, provides the other bookend in Bates’ four-man front. Eric Obeng is back after an injury-plagued junior campaign to share the spotlight at defensive tackle with senior classmate Chris Robinson.

“That D-line is probably as good a line as we’re ever going to have at Bates,” Harriman said. “I guess you never say never, but they’re pretty darn good.”

Ron DiGravio of Farmington anchors a group of experienced juniors and sophomores at linebacker.

“The last two years, there were a lot of little things that if they had gone our way, we would’ve had a winning season,” DiGravio said. “We definitely have the talent to do it this year.”

Offensive line is the Bobcats’ biggest question mark. Raoul Scott is the lone returning starter. Their protection is essential, because Bates has at least three all-NESCAC candidates at the skill positions in quarterback Brandon Colon, tailback Jamie Walker and wide receiver Dylan MacNamara.

Colon, a junior, passed for more than 2,500 yards in his first two seasons as a starter, and he tossed only five interceptions last year.

The schedule starts with two road games, including a trip to Amherst this Saturday. The Oct. 7 home opener with Williams is a key to the season, as are the traditional, in-state rivalry games against Colby (home, Oct. 28) and Bowdoin (away, Nov. 4). Bates has captured the CBB title twice in Harriman’s tenure.

More good news: Bates is the only team in the league to avoid a meeting with defending NESCAC champion Trinity.

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