Matt Kelchner strolled onto the practice field Tuesday night with a bounce in his step. His Christopher Newport football team was fresh off its first victory and preparing for a two-week stretch that likely will define its season.
If only Kelchner's players had been as jazzed.
Physically, the Captains are fine. No one's bandaged like a mummy or sleeping in the whirlpool.
But mentally, players appear spent.
The source is two-fold: The team's youth and CNU's ever-increasing academic demands.
This is mid-term week at Trible Tech, and students are saddled with exams and papers. Upperclassmen are accustomed to the grind, but Kelchner's roster includes 53 freshmen and 30 sophomores.
"It's the challenge of CNU academically," Kelchner said. "They all bought into it, and now they're facing it, especially the freshmen. It's not an easy deal."
Not that Kelchner resents classroom standards. They're in his blood, actually. He spent 17 seasons as an assistant coach at William and Mary — no academic bantamweight there — and his father served as president at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania.
"I'd rather have it this way," Kelchner said. "If it's not tough, you're not getting anything out of it."
But Kelchner and his staff noticed a mental fatigue Tuesday. Players were studying in the training room and locker room and, of greater concern, were a half-step slow on the field.
That's a problem as the Captains (1-3, 1-0 USA South Conference) face what figure to be their most difficult league tests: Saturday at home against Averett and next week at defending champion North Carolina Wesleyan.
CNU began the season with non-conference losses to third-ranked Wesley, Salisbury and Frostburg State, the latter two on the road. But the Captains bested Shenandoah in their USA South opener, and given the league's overall weakness — good luck trying to find a marquee non-conference victory among the eight teams — there's no reason six-time champ CNU can't contend.
Senior quarterback Matt Long has yet to throw an interception, and Kelchner described his play as "efficient" and "decisive." T.J. Foster is averaging 27.8 yards per catch, tops nationally among Division III wideouts with at least 10 receptions, and both lines have improved since the beatdowns from Wesley (34-6) and Salisbury (58-10).
Game-planning for Averett (3-1, 1-0) and its rugged, 245-pound tailback, James Wilson, Kelchner is heeding advice from Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, his friend from their William and Mary days.
"When players are fatigued, mentally or physically," Tomlin told Kelchner this summer, "back it down."
That translates to shorter, but hopefully crisper, practices, and fewer, if any, additions to the playbook.
"You can't be confused mentally and play fast," Kelchner said.
CNU is 8-1 all-time against Averett, losing only in 2005. But the Captains are 1-3 against North Wesleyan the past four years, and last season's 35-7 defeat to the Bishops was their worst-ever in conference.
"North Carolina Wesleyan," Kelchner said, "is definitely the team to beat."
Saturday marks CNU's 99th game since starting football in 2001, all under Kelchner. They are 63-35 overall, 49-11 in conference.
Did Kelchner view the gig as this long-term when he arrived?
"I just wanted to build a program and be solid," he said. "It's getting there. It's a tougher job now than it was then. How you schedule, how you retain (players), how and where you recruit all are different.
"But that's fun as a coach. You have to adapt."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP. Sign up for text alerts by texting "BIGSPORTS" to 71593
Christopher Newport faces season's defining stretch
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