By BRIAN LESTER
Senior offensive lineman Damon Howe looked around Donnell Stadium on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon and smiled for a good reason. He is one of 18 seniors on a University of Findlay football team that has high expectations.
The start of the season is still four weeks away, but it’s hard to ignore the excitement that surrounds this team a year after it went 8-3 and nearly clinched a berth in the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time in school history.
As Howe talked duirng an interview on photo day, he thought back to his freshman year and the hopes he and his classmates had back in 2011.
“When we were freshmen, we talked about what it would be like when we were seniors. That this was going to be our team,” Howe said. “We waited our turn and now it’s our team. All of the things we talked about, all of the things we dreamed about, all of the things we worked for, it’s time to do it now.”
Big dreams and big expectations are what this season is all about. But for the seniors, it took one big leap of faith to even get to this point.
The seniors were recruited at a time when the UF football team was in a bad place. The Oilers were 1-10 in 2010. They invented a new way to lose every week. Rob Keys was hired to take over the program in December, and the only thing he had to sell to recruits was a vision. It was a tough sell.
But the recruiting class of 2011 believed in that vision as crazy as it might have been. They took a gamble and hung their hopes on the words of a football coach.
Words can often ring hollow. In this case, they didn’t.
Wide receiver Lloyd Henry was one of the believers. And as big of a part as he has been to the rise of the Oilers over the last three years, even he is still in awe of what he and his classmates have accomplished up to this point.
“Wow. We started from the bottom for real,” Henry said. “We came to a program that was 1-10 the year before. We went 6-5 that next year, then 7-3 and then 8-3. Now, this is the year that should be our year. Our expectations are high. We are looking past the sky. There are no limits.”
The Oilers have won 21 games over the last three years. They have knocked off a few Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference powerhouses along the way, including Grand Valley State and Saginaw Valley State. UF also beat Wayne State in Key’s first season, stunning the Warriors 43-42 in overtime in Detroit. Wayne State went on to play in the national championship game.
UF has made great strides, but as big as those have been, the seniors expect to make even more in 2014.
“It’s definitely a big-time 180 from where we were when we started,” senior defensive back Harold Jones-Quartey said. “It’s exciting to see. I’m excited to see what kind of product we are going to put on the field this year.”
Keys is excited as well. He has poured a lot of time and effort into turning the Oilers into a contender for a GLIAC championship and playoff berth. But he won’t take all of the credit.
“It’s a testament to the coaching staff. Our guys have worked hard since December of 2010 and January 2011 to get to this point,” Keys said. “We’re out here today and you look at the players we have. The program has come a long way in three years. At the same time, the players are still hungry, they understand we still have a long way to go. We play in a competitive league and we have to play at our best every week.”
If the Oilers bring their best each week, anything is possible. This team has the potential to be great. It’s just a matter of staying focused and getting the job done week in and week out.
Howe told me one of the reasons he chose to come to UF was because of the coaches. He talked about how fired up the coaches were about turning the Oilers into winners. Now, he and his senior teammates are fired up about putting an exclamation point their careers.
“We want to do something special,” Howe said. “We’ve never had a GLIAC championship here and have never had a playoff appearance. We want to leave our mark on the program.”
The seniors have already made a heck of a mark, both on and off the field, and four years after making a leap of faith, they hope to make a leap to a championship.
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