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UMass football players show off at ‘Night of Champions’

AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts football team took another step toward boosting its fan base on Wednesday with its first-ever “Night of Champions” strength and skill competition.

The free event, which was held in Curry Hicks Cage at UMass, featured Minutemen players competing in various feats of strength such as the bench press, dead lift and squat.

But the highlight of the night was the slam dunk contest won by defensive back Khary Bailey-Smith. The athletic freshman was a 7-foot high jumper in high school and wowed the some 200 people in attendance with his sailing dunk attempts.

“Last week, we had like a little team dunk contest just for fun.” Bailey-Smith said. “They told me about the Night of Champions, and they said there was going to be a dunk contest in it. It’s only a fun game, so I just came out and had fun then ended up winning.”

As exciting as the contest was, the real focus of the night was to help drum up support for a team that struggled through its first season as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision with a 1-11 record in 2012.

UMass invited several local high school football teams and showcased mannequins modeling the team’s new all-white and all-maroon uniforms for next season.

“What we were really trying to do is get the high schools excited about weight lifting, seeing how strong our guys are,” Minutemen coach Charley Molnar said. “We had a quarterback squatting almost 425 pounds, we had a lineman trying to squat 700-plus pounds, so those are really phenomenal numbers.

“We just wanted to invite the high school coaches and players and give them a chance to see just how just how strong a college football player is and what they need to do to prepare,” he added.

Molnar said the “Night of Champions” would be useful for his team in a more practical way, as a number of players needed to catch up on offseason physical evaluations.

“We do tests as the end of the winter workout program to see where our guys are at,” he said. “And so we thought, ‘Why not do it in front of the crowd?’ Maybe the fan support would help them set new personal and school records, and I think we had some guys that had some phenomenal lifts.”

Offensive tackle Anthony Dima, who appeared in nine games last season as a redshirt junior, led with 34 reps in the 225-pound bench press.

Bailey-Smith said having local teams attend would be important for the program and inspirational for players thinking about the game after high school.

“I know all these boys, they aspire to play D-I football somewhere,” he said. “So having them come out and be around us and just hang out with us opens up their eyes and makes them want to work harder to get to the next level.”

Valdamar Brower, head coach of the Springfield Central football team and a defensive lineman at UMass from 1999 to 2002, agreed.

“It’s great,” he said. “Hopefully it’s inspirational to understand how important the weight room is and to understand college is a good experience. Obviously (at the event) they had a good time and (saw) they’re just guys like them.”

For Molnar, the task of drawing new supporters never ends. Before wrapping up the “Night of Champions,” he addressed the crowd and asked for help in getting 5,000 fans at the annual spring game at McGuirk Stadium on April 20.

“I think we’re developing a fan base, slowly but surely, not only in the community but also on campus,” he said afterward. “Anytime that our fans get a chance to meet our players and support them, I think it’s a great thing for UMass.”

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