As the new season approaches, North Carroll football coach Randy Clark looks for glimmers of hope.
He needs them badly after last year's disastrous 1-9 campaign.
Nevertheless, the Panther mentor thinks his team has improved.
This year's troops are a little stronger (although, Clark says, not where they should be), a little faster overall and more seasoned thanany he has had in his four years as the Panthers' head coach.
And, in another development even more important for the health of the program, the turnout is up. The junior varsity, dropped last year because of a lack of players, is back with about 20 players.
The varsity coaching staff will also handle the jayvee and freshman teams, the latter expected to have about 23 players.
While this arrangement might spread that coaching staff a mite thin, it nevertheless standardizes things by having all players taught by the same people.
"It will allow a little bit of continuity for each team," said Clark.
One of the coaches' major goals will be to work with the varsity on execution and keep it from self-destructing, as it did all too often last year.
"The first five games we lost were by less than a touchdown. You could always find a key mistake," Clark said. "A top priorityis to eliminate the key mistakes that kept us from winning."
Muscle is also a concern, although Clark says his strength training program is starting to show benefits.
"Strength is not what it needs tobe. We aren't as big (physically) as a lot of the people we play," said Clark, noting that North Carroll has the smallest student body ofany school in the Central Maryland Conference.
"But," he added, "we can't give away both size and strength."
He looks for experience to help this year.
Last year's starting running backs, Jason Small (23 carries, 108 yards for a 4.7 average) and Ronnie Miller (28, 164, 5.9), return to the backfield.
Capable sub Jeff Miller will see a lot of playing time behind those two seniors.
Senior Kyle Blackburn is the quarterback.
Under Blackburn, the offense will emphasize the ground game more than it did last year, when now-graduated Jay Snell, a strong passer, called the signals.
When Blackburn does throw, he will look to senior Wade Zufall -- who caught 40 passes a year ago for 768 yards and seven touchdowns.
Clark worries that thelack of size and strength will hurt him on defense, particularly with "teams that just grind it out on us."
But he adds the Panthers' improved speed might show up when the opposing team has possession.
"We have a lot of kids who are playing aggressive defense. We can put 11 kids out there who hit people and go to the ball," Clark says.
Small was the leading returning tackler (17 solo tackles, 85 assists) from last year's squad and will provide leadership at his linebacking position. Miller, a junior, is a key in the secondary.
Clark says the first three games, in which his Panthers play non-conferencefoes, are crucial for establishing confidence because, "once we get into conference play, we're the little kids on the block."
He adds, "we need some success early to get some positive feedback. If we can get that, there is no telling what we can do."