By the middle of November, the Johns Hopkins football team had completed a perfect 10-0 regular season, captured a fifth straight Centennial Conference title and earned a third consecutive trip to the Division III playoffs.
But all those good vibes evaporated in a 29-24 first-round loss to Wesley at Homewood Field, a game in which the Blue Jays surrendered the decisive 33-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds left.
Junior running back Brandon Cherry said he needed just a couple days to put the loss behind him. But the Parkville native and Boys' Latin graduate acknowledged that he watched the game several times to see what he could have done differently.
"I didn't have the best game of my college career that day," said Cherry, who was limited to 24 yards on eight carries in that Nov. 23 game after gaining 962 yards on 132 rushes with nine total touchdowns in the regular season. "So I just watched the film to watch the little things I can improve in case we're in a similar situation."
The Blue Jays hope to be in a similar situation this fall, but repeating last year's regular season success figures to be a more difficult task.
Although they are ranked nationally in three preseason polls — ranging from eighth (Lindy's College Football) to 14th (D3football.com) to 16th (The Sporting News) — they return just three starters on offense: Cherry, junior wide receiver Ryan Finkel and junior right guard Colin Egan. That trio will be counted on to acclimate, among others, senior quarterback Braden Anderson, senior left tackle Kyle Flynn and junior right tackle Rowan Cade.
"We may have three returning starters, but in all the other positions, people have played in games," Cherry said. "Coming in, the offensive coordinator [Greg Chimera] told all of us that there are zero returning starters. Everyone has to work for their spot and there are no given positions. So I think everybody on the team is taking the initiative to work hard and helping the man next to them to work hard."
Johns Hopkins was picked to finish first in the Centennial Conference's preseason poll, but the team had just 11 more points in the voting than second-place Muhlenberg. Blue Jays coach Jim Margraff quipped that league rivals are probably licking their chops at the thought of evicting the Blue Jays from their annual roost atop the league, but he said being a target is nothing new to the program.
"We've been in this situation before where we've come off a good season and had heavy losses on one side of the ball," Margraff said. "Some things get passed down, and I think our guys are looking ahead to this as a challenge right now. We've been a good team, and on paper, we're a solid team. But there's going to be a lot of questions and people will gun for us."
As young as Hopkins' offense is, the defense is well-stocked with experienced veterans. Nine starters have returned, and that unit will be counted on to anchor the team until the offense can find its footing.
"Coach Margraff always says that we're a defense-first team," said senior safety Ryan Rice, a preseason All-American second-team pick by D3football.com. "But we have plenty of athletes on the offensive side of the ball, and a lot of those guys have experience. So that's not even a concern for us."
While they've won 10 games each of the past three seasons, the Blue Jays have gone just 1-3 in the playoffs over that span.
Margraff joked that his ability to get over last year's playoff loss in a month — as opposed to a year — was a sign of growth, and he compared watching his players absorb the emotional impact of the sudden end to the season to watching a child strike out in a baseball or softball game with the bases loaded.
"Losses always stay with you, but I have to say that I was truly proud of our guys' effort," he said. "That was my message at the end. 'I'm disappointed for you and I'm disappointed for me, but I'm not disappointed in you or our staff. You've got to leave it there.'"
If Hopkins is fortunate to qualify for the postseason again, another tough opponent will likely be waiting. While that scenario may seem like miles away, Cherry said he has not lost faith in the abilities of his teammates or coaches to win in the playoffs.
"We know the path we have to take there, and it's not an easy one because every team in our conference can beat any other team on any given day," he said. "So we're just ready for that, and we're just focusing, concentrating on our opponent, listening to what our coaches tell us. The coaches put us in a great position to win [last year], and we just fell short."
Other state Division III teams
Coach: DeLane Fitzgerald (first season)
2013 record: 1-9 overall, 0-7 Empire 8 Athletic Conference
Outlook: There wasn't much to celebrate last fall as Frostburg State dropped its last seven games of the season and then bade farewell to Tom Rogish, who retired in November. The university hired Fitzgerald, who guided Southern Virginia University to 24 wins in five seasons. Fitzgerald inherits a team that returns 15 starters, including a trio of All-Empire 8 second-team selections in senior linebacker Rowan Pinkett, junior defensive tackle Roland Kamara and junior safety Marcus Moody.
Coach: Mike Hoyt (third season, 2-18)
2013 record: 2-8 overall, 2-7 Centennial Conference
Outlook: McDaniel was picked to finish last in the conference's 10-team preseason poll — in part because of the graduation of running back Joe Rollins, who led the league with 1,374 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013 en route to being named the conference's Offensive Player of the Year. Rollins' departure could shift the offensive spotlight to junior quarterback Ryan Yamada, who completed 49.6 percent of his passes for 1,295 yards and five touchdowns last season.
Coach: Sherman Wood (16th season, 108-53)
2013 record: 7-4, 5-2 Empire 8
Outlook: A year after saying goodbye to eight starters on offense and five on defense, Salisbury finds itself in a similar predicament, trying to replace seven starters on offense and four on defense. Junior nose tackle Nick Ochoa (Broadneck), an All-Empire 8 first-team pick, is back, but the Sea Gulls lost two starting cornerbacks — the conference's Defensive Player of the Year Andre Carter and first-team selection Calvin Ford.
Coach: Ed Hottle (fourth season, 8-22)
2013 record: 4-6 overall, 3-6 Middle Atlantic Conference
Outlook: Stevenson's four wins last fall matched the program's combined total from the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The offense returns junior quarterback John Gasparovic, senior running back Marcus Holley and sophomore running back Trey Lee, but the unit will miss wide receiver Jeromie Miller. Defensively, junior linebacker Donnell Brown (Poly) and junior defensive back Billy Lewis should anchor the Mustangs, who were picked to finish seventh in the conference's preseason poll.