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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. —Just three years ago the Central Connecticut State and Sacred Heart each managed just one Northeast Conference win.

It is safe to say that expectations for the 2019 season are significantly higher for both programs.

Sacred Heart and CCSU were picked second and third in the preseason NEC poll and despite the loss of some high-profile stars, both teams have their sights set on a run at the conference title.

“Our goal every year is to win the conference and go to the playoffs,” Sacred Heart offensive coordinator Matt Gardner said. “Last year we didn’t get to go to the playoffs, while it was a good season it ended in a way that we didn’t want. We wanted to be on campus over Thanksgiving break practicing, in 2013-14 when we won the conference and made the playoffs it was a pretty cool feeling to be on campus in November, everybody is leaving and it is just your teammates, it is something special.”

Sacred Heart combined to post a 9-3 conference record during the 2013 and 2014 seasons while CCSU recorded back to back 7-1 runs through the NEC in 2009 and 2010.

Still, there were tough times when the current group of Central Connecticut and Sacred Heart seniors were freshmen. CCSU’s lone conference win during the 2016 season came against Sacred Heart while a 16-10 win over Robert Morris kept the Pioneers from a winless conference record.

“It was one of our first recruiting classes so I think that is a huge part of it so we were able to get them to come in and brainwash them a little bit, point them in the right direction with how we want to get things done,” said Central coach Ryan McCarthy, who was promoted from offensive coordinator after Pete Rossomando accepted the job as the offensive line coach at Rutgers in January. “Obviously they are good football players and that is where you start. They fell in line, when your best players are your best leaders you have a chance.

“We did as much background, we want to make sure we bring the right kind of people in because if you don’t have the right kids, it is going to be an uphill battle.”

The Blue Devils bounced back from a tough 2016 season by becoming the first NEC team to finish undefeated in the conference in nine years. In 2018, it was Sacred Heart’s turn as the Pioneers finished tied with Duquesne with a 5-1 NEC mark.

“Central has great coaches there, we have great coaches at Sacred Heart and recruiting plays a big part,” Sacred Heart senior defensive lineman Chris Agyemang said. “You are going to have guys who fit your system and do the little things right on and off the field. We are student-athletes at the end of the day, we have to be eligible and do things in order to earn the right to play on Saturdays. Both program had players buy in and that led to a turnaround.”

Duquesne is the preseason favorite and received seven of the eight first-place votes. Sacred Heart picked up the other No. 1 vote, with running back Jordan Meachum and Agyemang representing the Pioneers on the NEC’s preseason all-star team.

Central Connecticut had six preseason All-NEC selections — receiver Tyshaun James, offensive linemen J’Von Brown, Connor Mignone and Cole Phelps as well as defensive backs Tajik Bailey and DJ Exilhomme.

The Pioneers will need to replace quarterback Kevin Duke, who threw for 1,736 yards and ran for another 473 a season ago. An interesting name to watch could be former St. Paul star Logan Marchi, who originally committed to UConn and played at Temple and East Tennessee.

“He reached out to us probably at the end of May beginning June, officially became part of the team the first week in July,” Gardner said. “Our first impression is what we saw coming out of high school, good football player, very smart, seems to be a guy who can fit in, he is well liked and respected and I look forward to working with him.

“He makes our quarterback room more competitive. We have four guys who have a chance to win the job and it is going to be interesting to see who it is going to be. It is going to come down to the wire, first time in a long time that room has been wide open for us.”

Whoever is the quarterback will have plenty of options with the return of the top two rushers (Meachum and Julius Chestnut), with Meachum one of six returnees with at least 10 catches in 2018. Sacred Heart returns five of its top six tacklers.

CCSU will be led by Brown, who is one of three returning All-NEC offensive linemen after the Blue Devils averaged nearly 300 rushing yards in conference play. CCSU did lose record-setting quarterback Jacob Dolegala, but the return of running back Aaron Dawson (896 rushing yards in 2018) should ease the pressure on the Blue Devils’ quarterbacks. The return of leading tackler Exilhomme and star cornerback Tajik Bagley will give the Blue Devils one of the top secondaries in the conference as well.

The Blue Devils did add former Georgia State quarterback Aaron Winchester to give CCSU a veteran signal-caller.

Sacred Heart will play host to CCSU on Oct. 5 while the Oct. 19 Duquesne-Sacred Heart and Nov. 23 CCSU-Duquesne contests will also be circled as potential games of the year in the NEC.

Sacred Heart kicks off the 2019 season with a game at Maine on Aug. 30 and the following day Central Connecticut plays at Fordham.

james.fuller; @NHRJimFulleer