For the first time in 14 years, Mike Whittles was not on the sideline when Archbishop Spalding's football team took the field for the first day of practice, but junior quarterback Zach Abey surely spoke for his teammates when he said their late coach's presence remains strong.
"He's definitely still with us, because every day when we're working out or when we're on the field, we can hear him in our heads just saying, 'Make every day count' and 'Never give up,' because we don't know what day is going to be our last day. We try to work hard and it gives me a big lift knowing he's still with us through everything I do," Abey said.
Whittles, who died in June after a 16-month bout with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, turned one of his favorite sayings, "Make every day count," into a team mantra for what would be a final inspirational season with the Cavaliers, one in which they earned a playoff berth in their first season in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference.
Although the players have prepared throughout the summer, the Cavaliers came together for the official start of the season Wednesday, the first day of fall sports practice for all MIAA teams. Public school teams start Saturday, and the girls in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland will get back on the field next Wednesday.
Under new coach Brian Propst, the Cavaliers begin their quest to build on their success from last season. They will do it with little change other than the physical absence of Whittles.
"I've told everyone this is Coach Whittles' program and we've been together for years," said Propst, who had coached with Whittles since he took over the Cavaliers in 1999 and who has retained the entire coaching staff.
"We know this program like the back of our hand, so the best thing we can do as a staff to make the transition for us, as well as the kids, as simple as possible is keeping the same routine, keeping everything rolling just as it would be if he was here. He's not here physically, but we've decided as a staff that he will be running this team in spirit. All the decisions, we know what he would have done and we're going to carry that on."
Propst said the toughest adjustment for him is not having Whittles there to answer his questions, but, now the answers pop into his mind.
"I know the answers are still coming from him," Propst said.
While there is some sadness that Whittles is no longer with them, excitement was the emotion of the day as the Cavaliers gathered Wednesday. After graduating 25 seniors and 22 starters, every position is up for grabs, Probst said, and that has every player ready to compete.
Senior defensive lineman Mike Williams, rated a three-star prospect by MDHigh.com, likely will earn a starting position, but he too is looking forward to competing for it.
"It's really exciting," Williams said. "I know how much competition there's going to be today. Everyone's going to be fighting for a spot. Every spot is open, so everybody's really working hard. Last year with so many seniors, it was still high volume but it was pretty much routine. This year is going to be different, because all the spots are still open."
The 2012 Cavaliers are young and Propst said they may have as few as 12 seniors.
"The competition level is high right now, watching guys compete for the positions which we haven't had for a while with so many seniors," Propst said. "A lot of times, you come up through the ranks and you have a senior ahead of you that's been there for a year or two and you think, 'There's not much I can really do.' This year, it's not like that. This year, we are totally open."
Last fall, the senior-laden No. 10 Cavaliers finished 7-4 and made it to the first-ever MIAA A Conference four-team playoffs. They earned a spot on the final day of the regular season by edging Loyola, 20-14, in overtime, on senior Brian Louck's quarterback sneak.
A week later, the Cavaliers' season ended in a 34-14 loss to No. 1 and eventual champion Gilman in the MIAA A Conference semifinals.
Graduating so many players as they return for an encore in the area's toughest conference could be daunting, but junior tight end/defensive end Melvin Gowl doesn't see it that way.
"All we heard all summer was, 'Wow, you guys lost so many starters,'' Gowl said, "but when you look around the league, all the top guys from Gilman and Calvert Hall, all those guys are gone. It's going to be us making a name for ourselves now. I feel like it's going to be a fun year."