With an overall record last year of 6-4 and an Ivy League record of 4-3, the Princeton football team is hoping it can continue to build on the momentum of its first winning season since 1998.

ÊThough the team graduated many key players, including Cameron Atkinson and Kevin Kongslie, who both earned First-Team All-Ivy recognition, and Chisom Opara, who, as a free agent, recently made it to the final stages of negotiations with the Baltimore Ravens, Coach Roger Hughes is optimistic about his team and their abilities.

“I like our team; I like our work ethic; I like how we approach the game,” Hughes said.

Possibly more important than their raw skills as a team, Hughes said the strong work ethic of his players could help lead the Tigers to victory this year. At a media conference on Sept. 5, Hughes praised his team for their alacrity, energy and discipline.

“We may not always be pretty, but we’re the hardest working team in the league,” Hughes said. “My message to the team is this: pack your lunch, put on your hard hat and get to work. The work ethic of this team is the best we’ve been around since our staff arrived four years ago.”

While Atkinson and Kongslie are no longer with the team, senior Joe Weiss, who also received First-Team All-Ivy recognition, is back for his final season. Weiss is one of the most promising players not only on the 2003 Princeton team, but in the entire Ivy League. During the 2002 season, Weiss led the Ivy League with 18 tackles for loss, recorded 62 tackles (including 33 which were unassisted), and was named Ivy League Player of the Week last year after Princeton’s 32-25 victory over Cornell, in which he had two sacks, 12 tackles, and one pass deflection.

Hughes is blessed with two talented quarterbacks, whom he says will both have a chance to play. Junior Matt Verbit, known for his strong arm and incredible athleticism, and co-captain David Splithoff, who ended last season with 3,446 passing yards — the fifth-best performance ever at Princeton — have each led the Tigers to victory in fourth quarter comebacks.

Joining Joe Weiss on the defensive line is Splithoff’s co-captain, Tim Kirby. An All-Ivy defensive lineman last season, Kirby had 46 tackles in 2002, including eight against Harvard.

The team is looking to two sophomores this season to support the Tigers as the team’s best linebackers. Justin Stull and Abi Fadeyi shared the team’s freshman defensive award last season, and the two may very well be starting this season. Fadeyi had 11 tackles (six solos) and Stull had six tackles (five solos) last season.

Hughes is hoping for a championship this year, though the team was picked to finish fifth in the media poll. Though Hughes believes graduating veterans will be a positive experience for his new players, there may be the inevitable growing pains that come with a young team. Of the 112 players on the team, 65 are freshmen and sophomores. The team will benefit, however, from having two very capable quarterbacks who both have experience.

“Having a younger team is something we’re used to, but I don’t know how talented we are,” Hughes said. “Offensively we are a little bit inexperienced.”

Hughes said he thinks the team will be in a better position after two or three games and a better feel for the Tigers’ strengths and weaknesses. In terms of leadership, Hughes feels that four-year starters Blake Perry and Weiss and three-year starter Kevin Manning will help the captains in guiding the team.

After defeating Lafayette, Columbia, Colgate, Brown, Cornell and Dartmouth last year but losing to Yale, Harvard, Lehigh, and University of Pennsylvania, the Princeton Tigers are looking towards a strong season marked by fresh talent, and a strong defensive line with many returning players.