Hilltoppers Kick Off Season

There’s always a touch of uncertainty for any football coach as he prepares for the season opener and West Liberty head coach Roger Waialae was no exception this week as his Hilltoppers put the finishing touches on preparations for Saturday afternoon’s road test at Catawba (N.C.).

Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. at venerable Shuford Stadium in Salisbury, N.C.

“We really don’t know what to expect from Catawba,” Waialae said. “They have a new head coach and new coordinators. They lost some pretty good kids but they have some good ones coming back plus they brought in some (NCAA) Division I transfers.

“We won’t know exactly what they’re going to do until Saturday so we’re going to have to be very solid in the things we’re doing and be ready to adjust on the fly.”

One thing Waialae doesn’t expect is a replay of last year’s season opener, the first meeting between the two teams. Handicapped by inexperienced personnel at key positions along with an injury-riddled offensive line, West Liberty tied a school record with eight turnovers and Catawba tied a school record with 11 quarterback sacks in coasting to a 24-3 victory.

“With all the mistakes we made,” Waialae said, “I wasn’t amazed that we lost, I was amazed that we were still in the game midway through the second half. I think we’re heading into this season with a much better idea of what we have in terms of personnel and how they shape what we want to do.”

After an up-and-down season of on-the-job training as a true freshman, Dylan Lagarde returns at quarterback for the Black and Gold. While it was painful at times, Waialae said the experience Lagarde gained last fall should begin paying dividends this year.

West Liberty rebounded from last year’s opener to put together a 6-5 season, the seventh winning season in Waialae’s eight years at the helm. Much of the credit for that rebound went to a play-making defensive unit that ranked among the nation’s leaders in turnovers forced and tackles-for-loss while ranking No. 1 nationally with six interception returns for touchdowns.

Catawba certainly won’t be lacking in that area as strong-armed senior QB Danny O’Brien, who opened the 2012 season as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, will be starting for the Indians on Saturday. O’Brien was the 2010 ACC Rookie of the Year at Maryland but transferred to Wisconsin when the Terps replaced coach Ralph Friedgen with Randy Edsall. O’Brien left Wisconsin after losing the battle for the starting job in spring drills earlier this year. Also new to the Catawba lineup is senior WR Quan Rucker, who spent the past four years at Wake Forest.