If there's anything more wearying to a coach than waiting for his team to grow up, it is having to do so while everyone else expects the squad to live up to expectations, or at least to past performance.
That's the situation that Hereford football coach Steve Turnbaugh is in these days. He looks at his Bulls team and its 2-1 record, heading into tonight's home game against Owings Mills and he sees a bunch of inexperienced kids thrown into new situations and he wants them to mature yesterday.
"We think we've got some kids that ultimately are going to be good football players, but it's an experience thing. We keep saying that we're a work in progress," Turnbaugh said last week. "All we can do is just keep practicing hard and working at what we are. Down the road, we'll turn the corner. We're not there yet."
That's all well and good, and perfectly in keeping with the life of a normal football team. The problem is that Hereford football is anything but normal.
Just last season, the Bulls were unbeaten and ranked No. 1 heading into the Class 2A state championship game, which they lost, 19-12, to Potomac of Prince George's County, when two-way standout lineman Joe Akers was hurt late in the third quarter with a neck injury.
That kind of excellence gets you noticed and invites comparisons, which is the last thing Turnbaugh needs right now.
"It's too easy to compare from year to year," Turnbaugh said. "This is not last year's team. We've got literally 35 out of 44 of these players who are new to varsity football. We're going to get better. We just have to take our time and work on correcting our mistakes."
Last week's 21-6 win over New Town was a microcosm of Hereford's season to date. The Bulls allowed a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage on a halfback-option pass, then settled down and shut the Titans out for the rest of the contest.
The offense, meanwhile, was a bit more problematical. It mostly stalled throughout the day, getting bailed out by critical New Town mistakes early in the fourth quarter that allowed for two Hereford touchdowns on a short field.
Some of Hereford's offensive shortcomings can be easily explained. Senior quarterback Adam Desantis is new to the position and is taking over for Andy DePaola, who threw for 22 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards last year. The rest of the backfield, like Desantis, is new as well, and working out all of the kinks takes time.
"As a staff, we're learning, too," Turnbaugh said. "We've never been in this position, but we think it will come. All we're worried about is fix what's broken and let's keep moving in the right direction. They are. Each week, we've gotten progressively better.
"There was a lot of positive to come out of this [the New Town game]. It would be nice to throw the football and complete some, but we're going to work on that and we'll get better at that."
In addition, the Bulls are operating without their best offensive player, senior Brian Smith. Smith, formerly a tight end, was shifted to guard but hasn't taken a snap this year, as he suffered a herniated disc in the offseason. Turnbaugh said he's not sure when Smith will be back, but Smith believes he can be ready perhaps as early as next week.
In the interim, all Smith can do is help his teammates grow as quickly as they can, but in street clothes, rather than in uniform.
"Pretty much, I have to take on a lot of leadership and show them how it's done up on varsity, that it's a different game, that it's faster and quicker with hard hitting," Smith said. "We just have to come together as a team. A lot of new guys don't know what it's like to be up on varsity."
They had better learn and fast, or the Bulls' nine-year playoff appearance streak will end. Already, Hereford dropped its opener, a 27-7 loss to Perry Hall. It was the first time in 11 years that the Bulls had lost their opener, dating back to the year before Turnbaugh took over at his alma mater.
But the signs of incremental improvement are there for the observation. For instance, the Bulls, who racked up a surprising 135 yards in penalties in the opener, sliced that down to 35 last week against Perry Hall. That's not great for a perfectionist like Turnbaugh, but it is a marker of good things to come.
The other positive indicator is an intangible, namely the spirit of the team itself, Turnbaugh said. The players have taken some punches to the nose but have never gotten down or turned on each other. Those are the things that serve a team well, regardless of wins and losses.
"They never panicked and they just keep doing what they're supposed to be doing, and the huge tribute to this group is that they never give up, and that's something that we can build on," Turnbaugh said. "No matter what the situation is, they'll keep after it." email@example.com