By Brad Fauber
The impact and importance of senior leadership in sports cannot be overstated. Teams need that veteran presence. Oftentimes, seniors are the glue that holds the entire team together.
In no instance was that more true for Shenandoah University's football program than this season.
The number of seniors on this season's Hornets squad wasn't great -- there were only nine on the roster -- but their impact certainly was.
Most senior classes don't have to experience what this year's senior group did. With the arrival of new head coach Scott Yoder this season, it was almost as if they were starting over. There were new coaches to get acquainted with, new schemes to learn and a new philosophy to accept.
But the senior class took those challenges in stride, and the impact was clearly noticeable for Shenandoah this year. The Hornets have won just three games heading into this afternoon's season finale against Washington and Lee, but the improvement that everyone in the program sought is there.
Shenandoah has had some monumental victories this season, including wins over rival Bridgewater -- the team's first victory in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference -- and an upset over conference leader Hampden-Sydney that will go down as one of the greatest victories in the history of the program. The Hornets weren't always competitive this season, but they demanded respect. They've begun to earn that respect, and it all started with the seniors.
"We're not where we are today if those guys aren't here," Yoder said. "Really, they did the heavy lifting because we did it the way we wanted to do it, but without them buying in ... we don't have a chance. I don't really have the words to kind of do it justice, but those kids will not ever be forgotten and we're going to build this thing the right way and we're all going to stand on what they've kind of laid down for us."
The relationship between Yoder and this year's senior class will likely always be a special one. Not only was it Yoder's first at Shenandoah, but some of the seniors had a direct hand in Yoder's hiring last winter.
The seniors liked what they saw in Yoder, and some were quick to express their support for Yoder from the moment he was announced as Shenandoah's new head coach in January.
"I think the first one that's got to come to mind is Byron [Mitchell] just because I remember where I was standing when I got the job and he called me," Yoder said. "He didn't know who I was, and he basically just said to me, 'We're ready to go in whatever direction that you want to take us.'"
The seniors' support for Yoder hasn't wavered since. Through the statement victories and the blowout defeats, the seniors have stood by their head coach 100 percent.
Even through the roughest moments of the season, the seniors understood their roles and realized the importance of laying the groundwork for the future of the Shenandoah program.
"No matter what the situation was, no matter if we liked the situation or not, we had to adjust to it. We had to put on a smile for the freshmen to help them feel comfortable," Mitchell said. "They always say, 'Fake it 'til you make it,' and some of us probably had to fake it until we got through the season. But everything we did was for the freshmen. We got used to this coaching staff, got used to the system and learned the plays. We did all that to get the freshmen comfortable so they can do the same for the next freshman class coming in next year."
There is no doubt that Shenandoah is on the right path. There is certainly plenty of room for improvement, but the right mentality is there. The seniors have made certain of that.
"Of course [the season] didn't go as I thought it was going to go, but there was a lot positives from each game and throughout the entire season and I can see where the team's going, the path they're on and where they're trying to get to," senior Sean Blackman said.
"I saw that throughout the whole season. I wish the record showed that, but it will eventually."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD