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July 23. 2014 8:12PM

UNH football earns preseason No. 1 in CAA

The New Hampshire Wildcats celebrates a fumble recovery during the first quarter against the North Dakota State Bison at FargoDome during a FCS semifinal game. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

University of New Hampshire football captains Cody Muller and Rob Bowman received the news on Wednesday morning when they arrived in Baltimore for the Colonial Athletic Association’s annual Media Day.

They got a kick out of what they heard.

And put about as much stock in the preseason rankings as usual.

The Wildcats — who play the first home night football game in UNH history against Dartmouth on Sept. 27 — are picked to finish No. 1 in the CAA, having pulled down 15 of the 24 first-place votes available in the balloting of head coaches and team communications personnel.

“It’s awesome, and to be honest, I wasn’t really expecting it,” said Bowman, the starting left tackle on the offensive line and a senior out of Cheshire, Conn., in a phone interview from Baltimore. “But it’s similar to other preseason rankings. That’s all it is, a ranking. It really doesn’t have much leverage behind it.”

UNH is coming off a 10-5 season and a nation-leading 10th straight trip to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. The Wildcats went to the tournament semifinals last December before falling at North Dakota State, which advanced to win its third straight championship.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be No. 1, but it doesn’t mean much,” said Muller, a senior defensive end out of Telford, Pa. “We still have to stay hungry and go out and play every game like we’re the underdog. It’s a tremendous honor, but we have to go out there and prove it now.”

The No. 1 ranking will attract even more attention to the Wildcats.

“It also comes with a little bit of a target on us,” Muller said. “Everyone is going to be gunning for us. Everyone wants to be No. 1. We’ve got to play like the underdog and not really worry about it.”

UNH returns a number of weapons on offense and veterans on a much-improved defense, as well.Junior quarterback Sean Goldrich, who directed last year’s playoff run, returns along with senior backup Andy Vailas, who also has been a starter.

Seniors Nico Steriti, a running back, and R.J. Harris, a wide receiver, were named to the CAA preseason All-Conference team.

Steriti rushed for 1,028 yards last season and became the first Wildcat to gain more than 1,000 yards since 2002.

Harris missed three games to injury last season and still led the team with 76 receptions and was second in yards gained, at 1,004.

Steriti has 2,319 career rushing yards, which ranks eighth on UNH’s career list. Jerry Azumah (1995-98) is tops at 6,193.

Harris is No. 2 all-time in receptions and fifth in receiving yards. David Ball (2003-2006) leads both lists at 304 and 4,655.

Villanova picked up two first-place votes in the team poll and was chosen as the runner-up. Richmond was third, and William & Mary was fourth, each with three first-place votes.

Towson, which lost in the title game to North Dakota State in January, was fifth, and Delaware was sixth.

Maine, James Madison (with one first-place nod), Stony Brook, Albany, Rhode Island and newcomer Elon of North Carolina rounded out the 12-team league.

UNH players wrap up optional summer workouts with conditioning tests next Wednesday then have a couple of days off before reporting for fall camp on Sunday, Aug 3.

The Wildcats play up a level when they open the season at Toledo, an FBS school, on Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. They are off the next weekend and play their first home game on Sept. 13 against Lehigh at 3:30 p.m.

UNH is at Richmond on Sept. 20 and then comes home to play Dartmouth at 6 p.m. on Sept. 27.

Lights currently are being installed at Cowell Stadium. A new UNH stadium has been approved, and the goal is to play in it at some point in the 2015 season.

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