WEST LIBERTY - Two football programs coming off rare down seasons meet for the first time Saturday when West Liberty plays host to Catawba (N.C.) in a mutual season opener. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Russek Field.
Hilltoppers coach Roger Waialae had his streak of six consecutive winning seasons snapped last fall when a combination of heavy graduation loss and early season injuries produced a disappointing 1-10 campaign.
''Last year was a nightmare,'' Waialae said, ''but we put that behind us as a group in spring ball and had an ultra-positive camp in August. It went so well that we almost hated to see it end but we're definitely looking at Saturday as a fresh start.''
Turnovers were a major problem for West Liberty last year as it set school records with 25 interceptions and 40 total turnovers, ranking near the bottom of the NCAA Division II charts.
Waialae said the lack of a running game was a major factor in WLU's struggles. After producing a 1,000-yard rusher in every previous year of Waialae's tenure, West Liberty's running game never got off the ground in 2011 and was held to less than 50 rushing yards a game.
The passing numbers seemed respectable on the surface, averaging 250 yards a game through the air with L.D. Crow at the controls, but first team All-WVIAC WR Brandon Schroeder accounted for the bulk of the receiving yards with 76 catches for 1,007 yards. No other receiver caught more than 29 passes.
Juco transfer Kenjay Trueblood should boost the rushing figures after a strong spring and a solid month of August. The receiving corps got a boost from the shift of backup QBs Ben Rogers and juco transfer Bo Whitney to wideout spots during August drills and true freshman Dylan Lagarde was pushing Crow hard for the starting quarterback job by the end of camp.
''We'll be much more balanced on offense,'' Waialae said. ''We have a lot more weapons. L.D. is still the starter but Lagarde made a very positive impression and I thought (junior backup) Chris Kiedaisch was the most improved player in camp. All three kids bring different strengths to the table, so don't be surprised if you see all three on the field at some point on Saturday.''
The defense lost All-WVIAC SS Alec Wood to a spring knee injury but got a boost when former starters Matt Betz and Derrick Rovira returned to the defensive line rotation after sitting out 2011 as injury redshirts. The Hilltoppers have gone for more speed than size on the defensive side of the ball, moving several linebackers up into the defensive end rotation and shifting a few more safety types into linebacker and run support roles.
''Obviously, we're going to miss a player like Alec,'' Waialae said, ''but we've been pretty pleased with the way the defense has been running to the ball and making plays. We have to take better care of the ball on offense and force more turnovers on the defensive end this year.''
Catawba head man Chip Hester heads into his 11th season with a team looking to bounce back from a 3-8 campaign last fall - the school's worst year in nearly two decades.
Senior quarterback Jacob Charest, a former Big Ten starter at Illinois, returns to lead the Indians offense after passing for nearly 2,000 yards a year ago. Like West Liberty, the Catawba defense also benefits from the return of some injured players - notably 2010 All-American DB/KR L.J. McCray and CB Scottie Floyd. Senior CB Jumal Rolle is a two-time All-SAC selection who has drawn the attention of several pro scouts.
Waialae was impressed by Catawba's talent level but said that wasn't his main concern coming into Saturday.
''In an opening game, we're much more focused on how well we do what we do than what the other team might do,'' Waialae said. ''We know Catawba has good players. They struggled with injuries last season but one of their wins was over UNC-Pembroke. We played Pembroke in our last game and thought they were one of the best teams we played all year.
''Both teams are going to make plays on Saturday. We just have to control what we can control, eliminate the mental mistakes and make one more play than they do.''
The Hilltoppers hit the road next week for a 1:30 p.m. game on Saturday at CIAA member Virginia State