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DECATUR — The second year under coach Dan Gritti brought the Millikin football program something it had been trying to accomplish since 2009 — progress.

The Big Blue went 7-3 last year, its first winning season since going 6-4 in 2009 and its best record since 7-3 in 2003.

This year, which begins 6 p.m. Friday night in Holland, Mich., against Hope College, the goal is a conference title. The Big Blue hasn’t won it since 2000 — Millikin’s longest drought since the CCIW was formed in 1946.

When Gritti arrived at Millikin, he had a three-year plan for returning Millikin back to CCIW prominence. In his first season, the team went 4-6.

If the three-year plan seemed overly optimistic after his first year, it doesn’t anymore. After last year’s 7-3 season, which included a win over conference powerhouse Wheaton, Gritti said the plan is on track.

“Year one was getting people used to how you do things,” said Gritti, who previously coached Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. “In year two, it was important to see some success. But the biggest thing was getting them to understand how big a step it was to the next level.

“Now, in year three, you have kids who have played for two or three years who know what you’re asking of them. They’ve seen the teams at the level we want to be at.

“This year is the test. Can we take the next step and be in contention?”

With nine starters back on offense and six on defense, that answer appears to be, “Yes,” especially with one of the starters being quarterback Nicco Stepina. A Casey-Westfield graduate entering his fourth year as Millikin’s starter, Stepina already owns 12 Millikin passing records, including both the career and single-season passing yards and passing touchdown records.

“If he’s not one of the top five quarterbacks in the country (in NCAA Division III), I don’t know who is,” Gritti said. “His mental preparation is off the charts. When you put that mental aspect with his enormous physical talent, it’s special.

“We’ll go as far as Nicco will take us.”

Stepina will have his weapons back from last year in Shelbyville graduate Jordan Smith, who set a Millikin record with 13 touchdown catches last year, along with senior Gerald Perry.

While Millikin was much-improved defensively last year, stopping the pass was still an issue — the Big Blue ranked eighth of nine teams against the pass. Quintaz Wright, Gabe Xayathone and Davion Jefferson give Millikin a formidable defensive line, and Matt Brown and Nikia Averitte are as good a linebacker duo as there is in the conference.

Defensive back, particularly safety, is Gritti’s biggest concern entering the season.

“It wasn’t that we weren't athletic enough last year, we just didn’t execute the scheme as well as we needed to,” Gritti said. “Our kids were great at locking people down, but complicated zone concepts take awhile to adjust to, especially because teams don’t run them a lot in high school. Hopefully this year, with more experience in those schemes, we’ll be better against the pass.”

Millikin’s first opponent, Hope College, won’t likely test that pass defense. Hope went 8-2 last year and racked up 2,808 rushing yards. Millikin last played Hope in 2013, losing 41-7.

The game is part of Hope’s “Community Day,” and a big crowd is expected.

“Any chance to get out in front of a big crowd, whether they’re for or against us, is a good experience,” Gritti said. “They have high expectations this year, too, so this will be a good test for us.”

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Contact Justin Conn at (217) 421-7971. Follow him on Twitter: @jconnHR

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Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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