For three straight seasons, the Coppin State Eagles have soared to unprecedented heights on the basketball court.
With Larry Stewart and Reggie Isaac leading the way, Coppin has won 63 games and two Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles and appeared in two postseason tournaments during that period.
Now it is time to "reload or rebuild," according to coach Fan Mitchell. "We're dealing with a very difficult situation with eight new players. The people left are going to have to produce."
"It's going to be a different atmosphere around here," said senio point guard Larry Yarbray. "All the big guys are gone, so everybody has try to fill in with scoring. It's going to be hard. We'll have to do it as a team."
The situation had Mitchell carrying a crying towel to the annua MEAC preseason news conference, but none of his fellow coaches was empathizing with him after dropping 29 of 32 league games to Coppin the past two seasons.
But he has a point. Losing Stewart to the Washington Bullets Isaac to the CBA, center Larry McCollum and key reserve Joe Hammond has deprived Mitchell of 56 points and 23 rebounds per game, roughly 70 and 60 percent, respectively, of the team total.
That's why bigger and more experienced teams such as Nort Carolina A&T, Florida A&M and South Carolina State were picked ahead of the Eagles in the preseason poll of the MEAC coaches and sports information directors.
"Everybody is going to look big to my munchkins," said Mitchell whose two returning starters are Yarbray, the school's career assist leader, and swingman James Mazyck, the MEAC Rookie of the Year in 1990-91.
"The team has potential. It can be as good as it wants to be, Mitchell said. "The toughest part is convincing the players to see out of the same window I'm looking through because potential can get you fired."
Replacing the scoring ability of Stewart (23.9 ppg) and Isaa (23.7 ppg) and the rebounding of Stewart (13.4 rpg) won't be easy. So, the Eagles are going to have to fly around the court.
"Basically, we know we have to hustle and play a 94-foot gam this year," said Yarbray. "We all have to step up. We have a lot of young players who have never been in this situation. I'll have to talk to them, keep them focused."
Mitchell is counting on that from Yarbray, who he said "had a off-year and didn't play up to his capabilities" a season ago. "You always need somebody who is contagious, that young people look up to. He was the top point guard in the conference the year before. Anything short of that would be disappointing."
The leading returning scorer, Mazyck, became a starter in th middle of last season, but Mitchell said: "I don't think he's playing to the level he needs to. Something hasn't happened so far."
Five other players could start: guards Michael Johnson and Keith Carmichael, a hot-shooting freshman, forwards Tariq Saunders and Darren Woods and center Galen Howard, the tallest member of the squad at 6 feet 9.
Howard had a heart problem last year, and "I was scared to pla him because of the Hank Gathers situation," said Mitchell, referring to the Loyola Marymount star who died during a game. "He has the same problem, but it's been diagnosed by three opinions as activity-induced asthma."
Mitchell plans to watch Howard carefully and "take him out i he's feeling a lot of pressure. We can only expect so much from him."
One factor which should help the Eagles is a somewhat lighte schedule. Gone are most of the tough, big-name opponents on the road, with the notable exception of Oklahoma.
"We lost by 20 there last year, and they weren't that good," said Mitchell. "But I've never been afraid of challenges. Still, this schedule was made with the realization of what we were losing from the team."
Coppin will have to rely on balanced scoring, its speed and a long last, tradition.
"We're going to surprise a lot of people," said Yarbray. "Righ now, we're looking at third in the conference. But we can win it if things go right."
"We're never going to find a replacement for Stewart," said Mitchell. "But with some scoring, we won't be bad. How well they work together will decide it.
"You never know what might happen. We're preparing to be a postseason team, but with youth there is always a ton of errors. No matter how intelligent or how good a motivator the coach is, he has problems during an adjustment period like this."