Sports Illustrated tabs Wildcats No. 1

Updated: August 23, 2003, 2:59 PM ET

ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- After going 11-1 last season, the Central Washington Wildcats have been put on the spot.

Sports Illustrated has picked them No. 1 in its NCAA Division II preseason football rankings.

"It's very interesting to see them put us up that high," said 6-foot-3, 299-pound starting senior offensive tackle Evan Picton from Manson near Lake Chelan. "They're thinking we're going to do good this year and we want to prove them right."

If the Wildcats don't believe Sports Illustrated about how good they're supposed to be, all they have to do is buy some other national magazines. Lindy's Football Annuals has them at No. 2, Don Hansen's Football Gazette No. 8 and Street & Smith No. 9 among Division II football powers.

Not bad for an underfunded program located smack dab in the middle of nowhere and just in its seventh season in Division II, up from the NAIA classification.

"People rank us number one and that's what we've got to do," said wide receiver Brian Potucek, who was a first-team Little All-American as a junior last season. "We've got to play like we're a number one team."

A year ago, Central Washington, led by quarterback Zak Hill's 2,694 passing yards and 22 passing touchdowns, went 11-0 during the regular season before stumbling against UC Davis 24-6 in a Division II first-round playoff game in Ellensburg.

Just two weeks earlier in Ellensburg, the Wildcats defeated Davis 38-14.

Central Washington coach John Zamberlin is trying to use the loss to Davis as a motivational tool this season.

"They beat us," Zamberlin said. "You can't sugar coat it. But I think we learned a tough lesson from that game. I think it made our kids hungry coming into the offseason and working up to this season."

The 2003 Wildcats' season gets under way next Friday here against Carroll College of Helena, Mont., last season's NAIA national champion.

Central Washington plays at NCAA Division I-AA Eastern Washington in Cheney on Sept. 13 in Cheney and faces Great Northwest Athletic Conference rival Western Washington at Seahawks Stadium in Seattle on Oct. 4. The Wildcats will play Western Washington again on Oct. 25 in Bellingham.

Last season, Central Washington was forced to go to overtime before beating Western Washington 35-28.

Hill, a slightly built sixth-year senior from Battle Ground in southwest Washington, will be the focal point of the Wildcats' offense again this season. He was granted an extra season of eligibility after having knee surgery.

At 6 feet, 185 pounds, Hill may not be big, but he is accurate.

Hill attempted 308 passes last season and connected with a receiver 209 times for a glitzy 67.9 completion percentage. He was intercepted only seven times.

One of Hill's athletic heroes is Jon Kitna, quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals. Kitna is now in his seventh NFL season after playing at Central Washington.

Hill knows he's too small to play in the NFL, but he'd like to play in Canada or in the Arena Football League after he's done in Ellensburg. First he'd like to win a Division II national title.

For Hill, that means passing for a lot of yards and scoring a lot of points. In their opener last season, the Wildcats beat Fort Lewis of Durango, Colo., 75-41. He's not someone who will beat teams with his feet.

"I'm pretty much a drop back guy," he said. "I don't do a whole lot of running."

Potucek, a chiseled 6-foot, 185-pound senior from Tacoma's Clover Park High School, caught 86 passes for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns and he's not regarded as Central Washington's best receiver.

It's his job to catch passes over the middle.

"That doesn't bother me much at all," he said. "The hits come, but, hey, that's football."

According to Zamberlin, NFL scouts have dropped by the Ellensburg campus to check out junior wideout Moses Lewis and senior wide receiver Jake Roberts, who are much bigger than Potucek.

Lewis, a speedy 6-3, 185-pound former high school track star from Yakima, caught 52 passes for 876 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He has been clocked in 4.48 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

Roberts, a 6-3, 195-pounder from Spokane, made 49 catches for 674 yards and three touchdowns in 2002.

NFL scouts also are looking at Central Washington's punter, Joe Smith, Zamberlin said. Smith, a senior from Enumclaw, averaged 43.9 yards per punt and had 17 punts inside the 20-yard line last season.

Zamberlin, 47, played seven seasons as a linebacker in the NFL with the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs, after playing for another small-college program in the state, Pacific Lutheran.

In Division II football, the scholarship limit is 36. Central Washington had 16 football scholarships last season and will have 20 this season.

"Hopefully, we'll reach a point where we're fully funded, but nobody here is on a full scholarship," Zamberlin said. "There are guys here who aren't getting anything. Even during camp, they're working a job at night time. They love the game of football."

In his seventh season at Central Washington, Zamberlin said he loved picking up a copy of Sports Illustrated and turning to the page that showed the Wildcats at the top of the Division II rankings.

"It's nice. It's nice recognition for the program," he said. "That's what we've been striving for. We've got to be out to prove 'em right."

Athletic director Jack Bishop, who was the football coach at Southern Utah for 16 seasons, thinks Zamberlin may be guilty of understating the value of all the publicity the magazine's ranking means to the university.

After all, the Central Washington campus is generally considered to be a stop along Interstate 90 on a trip from Seattle to Spokane.

"It's a huge achievement," Bishop said. "For us to be ranked number one in anybody's poll beginning the season or ending the season is a phenomenal achievement."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index