After a string of five losing seasons, Mount Saint Joseph's football players resolved during the offseason to create a new identity for their Gaels program this fall — one that would bring winning back.
Their work ethic combined with a more experienced team and schematic changes on both sides of the ball have the Gaels off to a 4-0 start — their best opening since 1995.
"Based on the fact that we've doubled our wins from last season, team morale is definitely at an all-time high," senior lineman Jimmy Moore said, "and getting a couple wins at Bullis and Dover (Del.), which crushed us last year, I think we've proved to ourselves that we aren't the same team we were last season."
As they head into their Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference schedule Saturday at Loyola Blakefield, the No. 4 Gaels, 2-8 a year ago, are the resurgent team of the young season.
They opened with wins over two teams ranked in the Top 25 of the state media poll, then-No. 21 Bishop McNamara, 42-7, and then-No. 9 Bullis, 20-14. Now, the Gaels are No. 6 in the state.
"We're finally getting that chemistry that we need," said senior Nevone McCrimmon, who ran for 351 yards and four touchdowns against Bishop McNamara.
"We've been together for a long time," he added of the 42 Gaels upperclassmen, "so it's finally all coming together. We still have to play up to our potential because now everybody wants to know how did we come to be 4-0?"
For fifth-year coach Blake Henry, whose best season was 4-7 two years ago, the answer is that combination of work ethic, maturity and understanding the changes on both sides of the ball, as well as believing in themselves despite adversity.
All of that showed in Friday night's 35-20 win at Dover, where the Gaels played without four injured starters, top running backs McCrimmon and Alvonte Thompson, who also start on defense, as well as linebacker Connor Jangro and left guard Jake Dahl.
Their backups didn't miss a beat. Freshman running back Sam James ran for 120 yards and a touchdown. Three sophomores — linebackers B.J. Morgan and Aaron Johnson and left guard Kyle Hunter — also played well filling in, as did senior cornerback Davonte Maura.
Mount Saint Joseph trailed, 14-7, before scoring 28 unanswered points to avenge last season's 59-44 loss. Senior Brandon Batts scored three times, and junior quarterback Bryan Costabile threw for 120 yards and a touchdown.
"The kids that backed up those [injured] guys up are all good players, but they're young," Henry said. "The older guys who've been on varsity for two, three or four years played well and believed they could win. That's important when you get in close games, to think we can win in the fourth quarter. The last couple years, we didn't think we could win."
It didn't help to have McCrimmon injured most of last fall after leading the MIAA A Conference in rushing as a sophomore. The Gaels also were young in many key positions, especially on both lines and at linebacker.
With new defensive coordinator Rob McCloud, line coach Walt Lambert and defensive backs coach Pete Hughes, the biggest strides this fall have come on defense. Linebackers Thompson, Jangro and Maliek Carr have grown into the starting roles they had last year, and linemen Jordan Garrett, who had three sacks at Dover, and Kyle Offerman have been leading the way on the line.
"Last year, we could score points, but we couldn't stop anybody," said McCrimmon, also a starting cornerback. "Our goal is not to let anyone score as many points on us as they did last year."
So far, so good. They're allowing just 15 points per game after giving up 39.7 last season. McNamara and Bullis managed just 27 total points after combining for 110 against the Gaels last year.
As they head into Saturday's game at Henry's alma mater Loyola (2-2) — the only MIAA A Conference team they beat last season — the Gaels should be nearly full power. McCrimmon, who missed the last two games, as well as Thompson and Dahl all returned this week.
The Gaels are aiming for their first MIAA A Conference title since they tied Loyola for the championship in 2007, but they know the competition is a step up from their early-season schedule.
"Every game is a rivalry in the A Conference," Moore said, "and being a senior, you want your class to be remembered as the class that beat Gilman on Homecoming or the class that went to Spalding and beat them on their Homecoming. We just need to stay focused. There's a lot of hype around us and that's just building expectations, but we're just going to be practicing as hard as we can."