When key players and personnel depart, it can cripple a team's morale and lead to a disappointing season. Upstart teams such as the Westminster Catawba Indians, who were within striking distance of the NCISAA championship game in 2009, can be especially vulnerable to chemistry-altering team and coaching shakeups.
But according to first-year coach Dan Devine, his team has wholeheartedly embraced the challenge and expects nothing less than postseason glory this season.
"We had some key guys leave, including the head coach (Ben McGarity), but the core group who was successful last year is still here," Devine said. "My squad sniffed a championship title game last year, and I think the taste of falling short was a blessing in disguise for this team. As long as we execute on the field, we can go as far as we want."
Under the tenure of former coach McGarity, the Indians went 8-4 last season en route to a deep tournament run, finally losing to Harrell's Christian High School in a game which decided a championship birth.
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However, the resignation of coach McGarity (who accepted a position as defensive coordinator for Providence Day School) and the graduation of four all-conference seniors, temporarily left the program reeling as it entered the summer months.
Devine eventually accepted the head coaching position in July while neighboring schools were already deep into summer drills. But despite changes to the roster and admittedly short preparation time, Devine refuses to acknowledge the setbacks as excuses for not building upon last year's accomplishments.
"There's no built-in excuses for our team," said Devine, formerly the coach of Hickory Grove Christian School. "We got off to a late start this season, but my guys have been conditioning for the better part of the year, plus we have 11 returning seniors. Our expectations are high and will remain high."
With a refined system in place from last season, and the foundation for a championship caliber team, the Indians look to their on-the-field leaders to build upon the momentum of last year's stellar tournament run.
But in order to realize their championship aspirations, key position players must forge their own identities as they step into the shoes of the all-conference players who preceded them.
"Losing some of the talent we did was tough, because those players were invaluable," Devine said. "They were the guys that helped build this program. The players I have this season will have to step it up for us."
Senior RB Josh Parker, replacing 1,300 yard rusher Broderick Moore, feels he is more than capable of stepping up.
"I don't feel pressure stepping into the starting role," Parker said. "We run an option-based offense, so I was seeing a lot of playtime last season as well as my sophomore year. I'm ready to bare the load."
"We just have to take it one game at a time," added junior starting QB Mark Vehon, stepping in for the departed Dan Casey who now plays defensive back at Davidson. "Our first goal is to become conference champs, so we'll take the season in stride."
Both Vehon and Parker credit the Indians' offensive production last season (nearly 30 points a game), to the lineman who gave their position players enough time to make crucial plays. The team is singing a familiar tune this preseason, as the offensive and defensive lines will be relied upon heavily to dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Andrew Duval, who plays both OL and DL, says the strength of the two units has been forged over years of playing together. The team's success hinges upon the reliability of the lineman, and Duvall knows it.
"This is a group of guys that have grown up together, and I've played with most of my fellow lineman since the 6th grade," said the rising senior. "Even as the offenses and defenses changed from team to team, the chemistry we've had as a unit helps us automatically know what the guys next to us is doing. We only had one player leave, so we're definitely looking for a big season, especially on the offensive side of things."
The Westminster Catawba Indians begin their season Aug. 20 against the SouthLake Christian Academy Eagles. Aside from his team's abundance of leadership and experience, coach Devine believes an intangible x-factor will perhaps be in their favor as the Indians seek the championship that eluded them last season.
"I became coach here in July, and this team hit the ground running immediately which really impressed me," Devine said. "I believe things happen for a reason, and I believe it was fate that helped bring this team together."