It was the little mistakes and the attitude that not only frustrated coach Dennis Greene but contributed to a disappointing 2-7 record for Erie Community College last season.
Ready to regroup, Green emerged from a recent camp practice full of his usual preseason enthusiasm. The mistakes? His team of returners is already light years ahead of previous teams as far as game smarts. The attitude? The team seems tightknit, with the second-year players acting more like big brothers than me-first players.
It all adds up to another late summer of optimism as the Kats open at home Saturday against DuPage.
"These guys are a heck of a lot smarter than other teams I've had," Greene said. "We are so far ahead of where we were last year. We're running the same stuff. We haven't changed. But we already have everything in on offense and defense. That's always a good thing because we can sit back and watch them rep and see what they're doing wrong and correct the little things. That's what beat us last year -- the little things, the stupid things. We're ahead of the game.
"I'll tell you why we're so far ahead -- we're focused. These guys are focused. We have guys that are focused and hungry. I've never had a bunch of kids that say 'yes sir, no sir' as much as this group. They hang on every word you say and then they go out there and do it."
The Kats return six starters from last year's team, but many are in key positions, including defensive linemen Malik Thompson and Jon Connors (West Seneca East) and center Vincent Tobia (Frontier).
The returning players actively worked to create a different team atmosphere after last season's poor results.
"We have a great team coming back. From a focus aspect everybody is ready," Thompson said. "We're just ready for the season because we think this group that we have is special. Last year we didn't have a lot of team players. If everybody came together it probably would have been different. That's why with this team, everybody is together, working hard and pushing each other. We love each other. We're family. That's a big deal."
"We're not dogging our teammates from last year," Tobia said. "We loved them, but they kind of read us the riot act and flexed their muscles as upperclassman last year. For us, we're trying to take the new players under our wing, show them how it's done and be more like big brothers."
The attitude shift wasn't just about doing things differently from last year's team. For Connors, it's about appreciating every moment on the field. In four games, he had nine total tackles, including four for loss, and two sacks before missing the second half of the season with injuries suffered in a car accident caused by a driver going the wrong way on the Skyway.
"The message I want to get across to these young guys is that it's a privilege to be out here," Connors said. "At any moment, it can all change. You should enjoy every second that you can be playing football."
Connors and Thompson will be the defensive leaders for the Kats. Last year, Thompson had 35 total tackles (22 solo), including 11 tackles for loss, and four sacks.
Offensively, while the skill positions get most of the attention, Greene is focused on the play of Tobia.
"Vince is the backbone. He is going to call all the fronts," Greene said. "Without Vince, we're just an average team. The offense is going to go according to Vince. We can do so much with our offense because he can make the calls and get them lined up right."