Those within the Shenandoah University men's basketball program realize the uphill climb that they face when it comes to being more competitive in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. They experienced that challenge last season.
In their first season in the ODAC after moving from the USA South last year, the Hornets struggled, to say the least. Shenandoah failed to win more than five games for the third straight season, finishing with a 4-22 record that included a 1-15 mark in conference play. Even that lone conference win was a gift that came courtesy of a Bridgewater forfeit after the 2012-13 season concluded.
In fact, the last few seasons have been rough for Shenandoah. Since head coach Rob Pryor took over the program in 2011, the Hornets are just 9-44 with a combined conference record of 3-25 split between the USA South and the ODAC.
Those aren't encouraging numbers, but there is a slightly different feel within the program this season. Perhaps its cautious optimism, but its still optimism.
The Hornets finally have some true veteran leadership after being forced to rely heavily on freshmen and sophomores last season. The roster depth is encouraging -- the 21 players currently listed on the roster makes this season's version of the Hornets the largest group the program has had in the last 15 years. The recruiting class, which included eight newcomers, brought in much needed size and includes a few players who could make immediate impacts. And senior guard Bryce Mitchell even admits that players are finally buying into Pryor's Princeton-style offense, something that wasn't necessarily true the previous two seasons.
All of those things perhaps point to some brighter days on the horizon for the Hornets, but maybe the attitude shift simply means that Shenandoah is just fed up with losing.
Talk to anyone in the program, and they'll tell you that things are going to be different this season. Not "ODAC championship" different, but at least a season where the Hornets start to win over some respect from their fellow conference members. In fact, it's almost a must for Shenandoah to see obvious improvement in Pryor's third season.
"I expect us to make a significant jump in wins," Pryor said Wednesday. "I'm not the guy who says we need to win 16 games or it's a failure of a season. I just want to see us compete every night and improve significantly in the win totals. The guys are putting in the work right now to get that done."
If Shenandoah wants that respect from the rest of the ODAC, it will have to earn it. The Hornets certainly didn't get any when the preseason conference poll was released on Oct. 31.
The Hornets were picked to finish dead last in the 12-team race, garnering just 16 points in the poll that was conducted by the conference's coaches. But Shenandoah has hardly blinked.
"It's expected," junior guard Jared Carithers said of Shenandoah being picked last in the preseason poll, "but we know the talent that we have here and we just use that as motivation ... They expect us to just roll over and get beat on, but we're going to come in with that underdog mentality and beat a lot of teams this year."
If Shenandoah is to do that, it will have to endure a tough conference schedule that includes facing three preseason top 25 teams in Hampden-Sydney (14), Randolph-Macon (16) and Virginia Wesleyan (25). Two of those games -- Hampton-Sydney and Virginia Wesleyan -- are on the road.
The Hornets also have home-and-home series with Randolph, Bridgewater, Emory and Henry, Roanoke and Lynchburg on its 16-game ODAC slate.
Shenandoah will be the underdog in every game it plays this season, but the Hornets now seem to be embracing that title.
"This is my fourth year here, and since my sophomore year I've been on an underdog team. I'm used to it, but this is going to be the year that we're going to prove everybody wrong," Mitchell said.
"That should be the mindset of our entire team. It doesn't matter who we're playing, we've got to go in with a mindset that we're going to win."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD