WEST LIBERTY - Coach Ryan Waialae raised more than a few eyebrows during the offseason when repeatedly asked how he would replace arguably the best senior class to play at West Liberty. He said it's simple, you bring in more talent for 2011 than you've had at any point.
Fans will get their first glimpse at 1:30 on Saturday when the Hilltoppers, ranked second in the West Virginia Conference preseason poll, open the season on the road with a school - Edinboro - it has created a nice rivalry with recently.
''You have to understand that when I say that I am talking about overall talent, meaning offense, defense, everything,'' Waialae said earlier this week. ''There are places we can afford a couple injuries and be OK, where in the past we couldn't afford any injuries.
''Now do we have as much individual talent? Probably not.
''But when you've got six corners still competing your talent is better. When you've got four safeties competing, the talent is better.''
Waialae concedes this has indeed turned into a rivalry, but at best it's been a one-sided one. The Fighting Scots have won three of the four previous meetings, with the lone exception being a 2009 playoff encounter in which the Hilltoppers rolled, 84-63. Edinboro pulled an upset of sorts in last season's opener, stunning West Liberty 20-19.
''I think it's good not only for our conference, but theirs,'' Waialae said. ''I don't think there's many opportunities outside of conference for them.
''They're well-coached. They play hard and they are not going to give games away. You have to go beat them.''
West Liberty knows a thing or two about giving games away. The Hilltoppers finished 7-3 a season ago and led in the fourth quarter during each of the losses. The real dagger was blowing a 35-13 lead to a Shepherd team that went on to reach the Division II national semifinals.
In attempt to reverse that trend, Waialae and company have been working especially hard on the mental approach to the game during the preseason.
''One of the things in camp we've tried to eliminate are the mistakes,'' he said. ''You control your own fate in this sport.
''The most frustrating thing about last year is we were not doing what we needed to do.''
Elimination of the errors hasn't been all that easy with the roster turnover. Compounding the issue is holdovers like receiver Brandon Carver, who hasn't practiced, and running back DeVaugn Gordon, who is injured, haven't been there to show the newcomers the ropes.
''A lot of times kids communicate better with kids, and that's the one thing we've noticed,'' Waialae said. ''Where I have noticed the bigger difference, we've played new receivers every year, but we've had kids that have been in the program explaining nuances as other kids are taking reps.
''Well the only guy we have back is Brandon Schroeder.''
One of the new faces is quarterback L.D. Crow, a transfer from Central Florida. Waialae says he has seen a lot of good things out of the strong-armed junior, but also noted it may take a while for him to get on the same page with his receivers.
''He's done well for us so far. He wants to learn and asks questions,'' Waialae said. ''In the same sense, we have to get the other kids caught up to where he is.
''That's the one unfortunate thing about D-II football - you don't get any scrimmages. We've tried to simulate games, but we're not a team that bangs on each other a lot.''
Edinboro, meanwhile, was ranked No. 6 in the PSAC preseason poll, despite returning 10 starters on offense, led by sophomore QB Cody Harris (176 of 268 for 1,811 yards and 11 TDs), and seven on defense, including All-PSAC West performer Branden Williams at cornerback.
''Everybody's in the same boat. We can't afford any losses,'' Waialae said. ''Fortunately in our region there is a lot of parity.
''There's not many teams that are going to go undefeated.''