Written by Mike Loftus (The Patriot Ledger)
MILTON, Mass. – It wasn't hard to see it coming. So many sophomores. Tons of freshmen. Seniors in short supply, juniors also somewhat scarce.
Lineups like that often struggle at the start of a season, especially when the previous season wasn't a success. It doesn't make early losses any less disappointing; the trick is to prevent them from making the entire year demoralizing.
That was the story of Curry College's 2015 football season. The 4-6 record, following a 3-7 campaign in 2014, wasn't what the Colonels wanted, but after a difficult start (1-4), progress followed.
Soon enough, they'll begin to see how much they benefited from that experience. They're eager to find out.
"We were keeping up with everyone at the end of last year," said Aidan Cawley, a cornerback from Abington High School who was one of many untested freshman to get on the field last year, albeit mostly in special teams situations. "We were keeping up with teams that were supposed to beat us easily.
"I think we should be able to beat some of those kinds of teams this year with the talent we have."
Curry now has much more of something it lacked in 2015 – experience.
"We were very young last year," said Skip Bandini, who enters his 11th season as head coach. "You can't remain young forever, though.
"Right now, we have 103, 104 kids in camp – the most we've had in a long time. And we have a lot of kids who have played a lot of football here."
That list includes plenty of kids like Cawley, who hopes to rise up the depth chart to play in more scrimmage situations. It also includes some seniors like receivers Anthony Nastasi and Jake Cawlina, who had breakout years as juniors.
Nastasi caught 88 balls in 10 games last year, an average that ranked ninth in the nation at the NCAA Division 3 level. Cawlina didn't grab as many (37), but his per-catch average (17.2) and touchdown totals (seven) were high.
They helped ignite a passing game despite the loss of injured starting quarterback Mike O'Hearn (the senior is back to compete with juniors Alex Corvese and Spencer Tyler), which in turn ignited a strong second half. Curry went 3-2 in its final five games (all within the New England Football Conference, where it finished with a 3-4 record), and could have gone 5-0: Uncharacteristic mistakes after taking a 20-0 lead led to a 21-20 loss at Maine Maritime on Halloween, and the Colonels' 27-21 loss at Endicott the next weekend came in overtime.
"We definitely should have won out. We could have been 6-4," said Bandini, whose team hasn't finished above .500 since 2012 (6-4). "But we weren't.
"I think all these kids that are back will learn lessons from that. Everything happens for a reason."
A primary reason Curry started winning, or coming close down the stretch, was a significant improvement in defensive performance. After surrendering a minimum of 31 points in their first four losses, the Colonels were never that generous again. The only opponent to top 21 points in regulation over the season's final five games was MIT, and Curry won that finale, 26-24.
This season's goal is to bring things together on both sides of the ball a little sooner than last year. There's some experience to lean on, but improvement is always possible. The Colonels are looking for it along their lines, in particular.
"We have eight returning starters on defense, eight returning starters on offense," Bandini said. "The lines, on both sides of the ball, can be adequate, but I think you can always use more depth.
"We still have to find some people who can step up and play for us. We've got a long way to go before we're a good football team, but we like our kids' attitude."
Picked by NEFC coaches to finish fourth in the conference (they placed fifth in 2015), the Colonels open a nine-game season on Sept. 2 against visiting non-conference opponent Bridgewater State. The Bears hosted last year's opener and won, 42-21.
"Hopefully, we coaches come up with a good game plan," said Bandini, who brought in three new assistants this season, "our kids can execute it, and we can be successful.
"I've told this team, I think the players and the coaching staff are some of the best people we've had around here in a long time. Where that takes us, we'll see."