ST. MARY'S CITY -- The day is crisp, the leaves turning gorgeous shades of red and gold and the big team on campus is preparing to meet its archrival this weekend.
But the familiar sounds are missing. No clacking pads, no loud pops from a hard tackles, no "Hut! Hut! Hut!" from a quarterback.
That's because this is St. Mary's College, and the big team on this campus along the St. Mary's River is the sailing team.
On most afternoons, the sounds are those of the gentle lapping of water against the dock, the flapping of sails as they're hoisted and the voice of coach Adam Werblow as he directs his team in its afternoon practices.
"I love football and I miss it," said All-American Ty Reed, a senior from Sunset Cliffs, Calif. "But if we had football they'd get all the funding. It would definitely detract from any attention going to us. But being a small school and not having football, it means we don't get neglected and passed over."
These days, almost no one fails to notice the sailing team at St. Mary's, where enrollment is just 1,500.
The school's coed team is the defending national champion. And this season, Sailing World magazine has ranked both the coed team and the women's team No. 1.
St. Mary's will compete at the Naval Academy in the Navy Fall Invitational today and tomorrow. The 22 competitors will include eight of the nation's Top 10 teams.
St. Mary's is the defending champion in the event, and Navy sailing coach Pat Healy said he believes St. Mary's has a very good chance of repeating both in the Navy regatta and as national champs next June.
"They've got a lot of strong, talented veterans on their team," said Healy, whose Mids are ranked No. 4. "Half the battle in this sport is to convince everyone else that you should beat them, and they've done a very good job at that."
Sailing is an unusual collegiate sport in several respects. For one thing, men and women compete together, the only collegiate sport in which that's true; and, for another, there are no NCAA divisions to separate the little teams from the big ones.
St. Mary's competes for its No. 1 ranking against the likes of No. 2 Southern California, No. 4 Navy and the Ivy League schools.
"We compete against the biggest and the best," said Scott Steele, a 1981 graduate who, like many former St. Mary's sailors, returns often to help the team and mingle with old teammates.
"When I was here, the team was made up of regional people," said Steele, a two-time All-American and a silver medalist at the 1984 Olympics. "Now, Adam has expanded the recruiting area to make it nationwide.
"You've got to respect what Adam has done with this team. He's kept us near the top year in and year out and last year we earned No. 1. St. Mary's is like Florida State in football. The name is there. The name is known. And it's very attractive to kids [who want to sail]."
Last season, the little school with the broad-based constituency dominated its opponents.
In June, the team rolled up a 16-1 record at the ICYRA/Ronstan National Championshipa. Before that, throughout the regular season, which has both a fall (end of August to Thanksgiving) and spring (Feb. 1 through the first week of June) schedule, the Seahawks regularly won by 90 or 100 points, instead of the usual 10 or 15. This season, they've continued the batterings.
Healy, who returned to Navy 15 months ago after spending more than a decade coaching the Canadian Olympic sailing team, said competing against talented St. Mary's is "like being in a foot race.
"Do you get mad at the guy running in front of you or do you try harder? We're trying harder."
St. Mary's began its climb in 1988, when Werblow graduated from the University of Connecticut and came to the school on the St. Mary's River. There, he found fertile ground on which to mold his passion for sailing into the best college team in the country. And, according to senior Katie Maxim, a 23-year old economics major, mold them is what he does.
"Adam really tries to evaluate us and gives each of us what we need," said Maxim, an honorable mention All-American last season. "I've learned more in the last four years than in the entire time before.
"He's organized. He plans way in advance. He's attentive to detail. And he has allowed us to not have to worry about fundraising. He does all the leg work and we just come down and go sailing."
Werblow, 33, was hired by Mike Ironmonger, whose job as director of the waterfront program is similar to that of an athletic director.
"Mike and I went to the administration with a gimmick," recalled Werblow, whose school budget has gone from $1,250 in 1988 to $70,000 a year, a sum that includes salaries, equipment, travel and supplies.
The pitch they made was for a $100,000 loan to build a sailing fleet and a national-level team at the same time the college was building its reputation academically.
Today, the sailing team is No. 1 and St. Mary's College has been ranked the No. 1 public liberal arts college in the country and its freshmen had the highest SAT scores in Maryland, according to U.S. News and World Report magazine.
In the office of St. Mary's president Maggie O'Brien, there is no doubt about the role of the sport.
"We've had sailing at St. Mary's since the 1960s," O'Brien said. "In the fall and spring, you can come down here and find the banks of our natural amphitheater covered with students watching the sailing team. The water is our football field.
"In February, you can look out on the water and see the team in wetsuits, sailing. And you ask, 'How can they be that passionate?' But sailing here is part of the ethos of the place."
Navy Fall Invitational
What: Intercollegiate regatta
Where: Naval Academy (near Sailing Center)
When: Today, 9: 30 a.m. to 4: 30 p.m.; tomorrow, 9: 15 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Outlook: A total of 20 schools, including 15 of the sport's Top 20-ranked coed programs, will compete in four divisions. This regatta and another hosted by Navy in the spring are the two largest intercollegiate regattas held in North America each year.