ARMAGH — In an 0-10 season, not too many players distinguish themselves for guaranteed starting roles the following year.
That’s quite all right, though, for new United coach Lance Holupka, who started his ground-up building of the Lions with an energetic, competitive camp with wide-open position battles.
“We’re stressing that we’re here to compete and we’re not going to back down from anybody,” the first-time head coach said. “We understand our position. We understand where we were last year, but we’ve all decided that last year is last year, and we’ve moved on. It’s a different attitude. People are going to be a little surprised by what they see from us.”
United was outscored by an average of 40-3 last year, losing by at least 19 points in every game of a season that got out of control quickly.
“It was a rough season, but we learned from it,” junior running back Tyler Oliver said. “It pushes us even more, because we don’t really remember any team from before, when we were younger, that had a season like that. They all won, so we want to be that team again.”
“We don’t want it to be easy,” Holupka added. “I don’t want it to be, ‘Let’s bring in the easiest teams so we can get wins.’ I don’t want people to feel bad for us because we were 0-10 last year. That doesn’t fly in my book. We’re not out to win two games and have everyone pat us on the back and say, ‘Good job, Coach,’ because you improved. No. That’s not improvement to me. Improvement to me is being in the playoffs and being competitive and playing for championships. That’s what we’re here to do. We’re not here to win three games or go .500.”
To get to the point of competing in games, and within the Heritage Conference standings and District 6 rankings, it takes a simple, grassroots approach for Holupka.
“You just show up and you put your work in,” he said, “and when you’re working as hard as we do as a coaching staff, they pick up on that. They’re going to work as hard as you’re going to work, and they’re going to take to the personality of the coach. We’re hard-working people, and we demand hard work.”
That personality is one of dedication to and pride in United and its football program. Holupka, a 1990 United graduate, served several seasons as an assistant coach for the Lions, including their last two playoff appearances in 2009 and ’10. His attitude is one that has already started to take hold.
“He’s not really a new coach,” Oliver said. “We’ve had him as an assistant coach before. We’re all used to the way he coaches and everything.
“He’s a real positive guy. He knows what he’s doing in football. He knows what it takes to be the best. He’s coached teams that have been the best before.”
“We’re not backing down,” Holupka said. “We’re going to get up in there and we’re going to compete, whatever the final score is going to be, but we’re not going to be afraid to play Ligonier. We’re not going to be afraid to play Homer. We’ve got Bishop Guilfoyle, Week 10. We all know that they’ve got a lot returning and they’re going to be pretty good, but we’re not afraid to play them either.”
Oliver, who finished last year as the team leader in rushing — with 279 yards — was one of few exceptions as a player in the spotlight in camp. He’ll start at running back and middle linebacker. The other early standout was newcomer Seth McLendon, a senior who will play fullback and defensive end.
“The competitiveness of what we have going on in practice is making us a better football team,” Holupka said. “In all the years I’ve been here, this is the most competitive camp that I’ve been around since our really, really good teams back in the late ’90s. They like to compete with each other. They make each other better. They take time to teach each other if somebody’s making a mistake. It’s not to get on you and make you feel bad about it, it’s let’s pick you up and correct your mistake and make you better for it, and everybody has really bought in to that.”
Weylon McGeary and Matt Dill, who saw time under center last year, along with Jesse Beacker, battled for the starting quarterback spot. A lot of the rest of the lineup was in a similar situation in camp.
Andrew Deitman, Derrick McLaughlin and Anthony Michaels are returning starters on the lines and likely will get first-string spots. Not that Holupka is intent on eventually settling on just 11 players at a time.
“I always like to play for or five at D-end and I like to play four or five at D-tackle,” he said. “I tell them, give me two hard plays, three hard plays, and when you’re gassed, you come out and we’ll send someone else in. But the guy who’s going in is going to be just the same caliber as you are, so we’re not taking a drop-off.
“I saw them play one game last year down at Homer-Center. They took the ball down the field and put it right in, up 7-0, and they fell apart because they ran out of gas. They didn’t have anybody else to sub in. Well, now we have people to sub in. As long as we stay healthy, we’re going to have a good rotation there. … It’s a good problem to have.”