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MIT football kicks off a season of promise in California

Peter Williams takes a look around practice sessions at MIT these days and notes the seismic change, nearly 80 players strong dressed in their black gear, united for a workout at Steinbrenner Stadium (that would be George’s father, Henry, a track athlete of renown at the institute in the late 1920s).

“We just have more players now, the whole mentality has changed,” said Williams, a lanky 6-foot-3-inch, 195-pound junior quarterback from Portland, Ore., who, like a number of his teammates, hung around Cambridge this summer. An aerospace engineering major, he worked on undergrad research, along with 7-on-7 passing drills.

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“Expectations are huge,” he said.

Bolstered by an impressive freshman class numbering 30, more than half of whom earned all-country, all-district, or all-conference honors, and coming off the program’s first winning campaign in 13 years, the Engineers are geared up to take the next step under the direction of fifth-year coach Chad Martinovich.

Saturday afternoon, 2,900-plus miles away from their athletic facilities, MIT will kick off a season of promise in Claremont, Calif., taking on another institution of academic repute, Pomona-Pitzer. (Forbes’s 2013 ranking of top colleges lists Stanford No. 1, followed by Pomona).

The Engineers’ mission is two-fold: walk off Merritt Field with a win, while acknowledging an area that has a fertile alumni base (Silicon Valley) and luring future recruits. MIT’s roster lists 12 players that call California home, more than any other state. Martinovich, in fact, left a day ahead of his team to touch base with potential student-athletes.

The cross-country trip, no cheap fare, was made possible by a well-intentioned alum, who four years ago donated money to the athletic department, allowing each of its Division 3-high 33 varsity programs to travel out of the region for one game.

Martinovich made a few calls, targeting alumi-rich areas. He found Pomona-Pitzer, with a Harvard man, Norwell, Mass. native Roger Caron at the helm, a very good fit.

“The whole team is pretty excited because something like this doesn’t happen very often around here,” said Martinovich.

Their longest road trip previously in the modern era: Siena (before it dropped football), in upstate New York, in 1988.

Pomona-Pitzer, which competes in the challenging Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference against the likes of Cal Lutheran and the Redlands, will make the return trip to Cambridge next fall.

“We’ve been looking for an East Coast game for a while, and the NESCAC schools do not play out of league,” said Caron, a two-time, all-Ivy tackle at Harvard who suited up for three seasons in the NFL after being selected in the fifth round of the 1985 draft by the Colts. He got his start on the sideline with a seven-year run on Dick Farley’s staff at Williams.

Caron has been in Claremont since 1994, enjoying the craziness and the climate (“no snow, no rain”), even when the temps were 95 all week.

“We’re playing nationally ranked programs seemingly every other week . . . we have 55 players on the roster, we’re always looking for similar playing partners.”

MIT is dressing 79, its largest number ever, and a slight uptick from last year’s 64 that churned out a 5-4 mark in the New England Collegiate Football Conference.

This season, the difference is depth, which translates into more competition, and the ability to absorb an injury or two without being decimated.

“My first few years, we were so worried about kids getting hurt,” said Martinovich.

Even a year ago, after a 20-19 statement win over Salve Regina, MIT paid the price. “We got a few guys beat up, and we were a shadow of ourselves the rest of the way,” said the coach.

Under center, Martinovich has Williams, a junior captain who set a school mark for total offense (1,911 yards) last season. “We will be able to be a lot more physical this year,” said the quarterback.

In the backfield, another junior, 6-foot, 205-pound Justin Wallace, averaged 96.7 yards per game last year. And then there’s Brad Goldsberry, a 5-8 dynamo from Elizabeth, Colo., who paced the NEFC in all-purpose yards (189.9) as a sophomore.

“We ask him to do a lot of things for us,” said Martinovich.

Defensively, Jake Laux remains a force.

Yet the hard-hitting junior linebacker is determined to take his game up a notch despite finishing fourth in Division 3 in tackles (13.4 per game) a year ago.

“Yes, I had a lot of tackles, but I don’t think that tackles are a good metric of defensive success,” said the chemistry major, who spent his summer working at a bio-tech firm in Madison, Wis.

“I wanted to be more disruptive; a tackle is good, but a tackle for a loss is better, or a forced fumble, or an interception, or a sack . . . something that disrupts the offense. Every play ends up with a tackle. So if you can be disruptive, that is much more successful.”

As Martinovich notes, “the kids want to take the next step. We’ll take it one week at a time.”

After taking the red-eye back to Boston Saturday night, they’ll focus on their next foe: at Becker, next Saturday.

Craig Larson can be reached at clarson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeLars.
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