Shenandoah University's football program learned the hard way of the importance of remaining consistent week in and week out.
The 2013 edition of the Hornets -- though they improved dramatically on 2012's one-win season by winning four games last fall -- could never seem to put together two consecutive inspiring performances last season under then first-year coach Scott Yoder.
Shenandoah opened the season with a 31-20 loss to Gallaudet -- a Division III playoff team in 2013 -- before snapping its 10-game losing streak by topping Ferrum on the road, 43-29, in the second game. The Hornets followed that with a 34-6 road loss to Christopher Newport the next week.
With an off-week to regroup, SU achieved a monumental victory over rival Bridgewater on Oct. 5, beating the Eagles 29-20 for the program's first conference win as a member of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. Those good vibes didn't last, though, as the Hornets were trounced by Guilford (56-29) and Catholic University (37-7) in their next two games.
Then came arguably the greatest victory in the history of Shenandoah football -- a 36-35 upset on the road of eventual ODAC champion Hampden-Sydney on Oct. 26 in a game in which the Hornets rallied from a 19-point first-quarter deficit and then gambled and succeeded on the go-ahead two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown with 47 seconds to play.
But staying true to form, Shenandoah lost its next two games to Randolph-Macon (42-7) and Emory & Henry (37-20) before closing out the season with another impressive win, this time a 21-14 victory over 2012 conference champ Washington & Lee.
"That was the one thing that I thought we lacked last year, consistency in our confidence," Hornets senior linebacker Sean Blackman said after practice last week. "Some games we looked like we could be the best team in the ODAC and then other games we looked like we're the worst team in the ODAC, and a lot of that played off confidence. If everybody on the team isn't confident that the system is going to work and we're going to beat this team, then we've already lost the battle before we've even played. I think this year after seeing it, being in it, we believe that it is going to work. Guys are more excited, more enthused to be out here, so I think that's a positive thing to see."
That kind of attitude is sure to be satisfying for Yoder, who said right before the Hornets broke fall camp last week that the team's No. 1 priority has to be building and maintaining that collective confidence. Finding ways as a coaching staff to establish that, Yoder said, is the "fun part."
"You're talking to 19- and 20-year-olds and consistency doesn't sound very fun. It's not a 'cool' word," Yoder said. "We all know that's what good careers, good teams, good jobs are built on and that's what we need to do."
As a coaching staff, that might be easier said than done. But what could prove invaluable to the Hornets this fall is the leadership of the players who experienced first-hand what a lack of consistency -- and, in turn, confidence -- can do to a team's performance on a weekly basis.
Those players already had an idea about how to right the ship in 2014 as soon as the Hornets hit the practice field last week.
"It all starts with practice," junior wide receiver Brandon Adams said. "We've got to compete more with each other, not let somebody go out because that's your friend or something. You've got to give the same effort that you'd give anybody from the ODAC or any other opponent that's in front of you. You've got to treat them like they're an opponent during practice and that can always make us better."
SU's players, particularly those who competed last season, also feel like some of the issues that the Hornets faced last fall should iron themselves out now that they have had a year to work in the new offensive and defensive systems brought in by Yoder and his staff.
Shenandoah returns plenty of experience this season -- including 10 starters on offense -- and should be primed to improvements in year two of offensive coordinator Stan Hodgin's spread offense.
"Confidence builds from running plays correctly," senior quarterback Drew Ferguson said.
Shenandoah will put its new mental approach to the test on Sept. 6, when the Hornets open the regular season with a 7 p.m. road game at Gallaudet. SU opens conference play on Oct. 4 on the road at Bridgewater.
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org