The New Albany Bulldogs closed the 2013 season with a first-round loss in the sectional, then lost 28 seniors in a skill-laden class. But coach Charlie Fields enters his fourth season with enthusiasm, knowing his program is building toward something better.
“I’m excited; we’re starting the cycle all over again,” he said. “That’s the sign of a real program. You don’t rebuild, you reload.”
Fields took over in 2011, and his first squad went 1-9, followed by a 5-5 campaign in 2012. Last season the Bulldogs finished 6-4, led by All-State running back Tuwan Payton. But Payton and his 2,000-plus yards are gone, along with kicker Vince Falcone.
“We lost a lot of skill players,” Fields said, who pointed to Falcone as the player who will be missed on special teams.
“He is going to be much harder to replace,” the coach said, noting that New Albany relies on solid special-teams play to be successful.
But the Bulldogs have the experience and talent to replace most of the missing pieces. A key to that developing experience was lopsided wins last season. Of New Albany’s six victories, five were by an average of 36 points. That allowed Fields to substitute frequently with underclassmen.
“We had some big wins and were able to play a lot of kids,” he said. “We played our backups. Now a lot of our kids have varsity experience.”
Senior linebacker Adrian Mills (6 feet 1, 195 pounds) is a returning starter whose “experience and leadership are invaluable,” Fields said. Joining Mills behind the line are Nick Haley, a 5-9, 185-pound senior linebacker, and Antawon Swims, a 5-8, 161-pound senior cornerback.
Having lost a key performer in the backfield, the Bulldogs are fortunate to have senior quarterback Zach Donan (5-9, 171) back.
“He’s grown up physically and mentally, both on and off the field,” Fields said. “We featured Payton last year, and Donan understood — that show’s a lot of leadership.”
Joining Donan in the backfield will be junior running back Derek Griffin (5-10, 217). A key to the offensive line is senior center Brent Barger, who takes over for the graduated Braxton Bragg.
With Donan at the helm, the Bulldogs may be more of a passing team than last season — or Fields might opt to run the ball just as much as he did when Payton roamed the backfield.
“Our system is set up to take what someone gives us,” the coach said. “We’re flexible enough to do that.”
And while an improvement on last season’s record certainly is a goal, it isn’t the bottom line.
“We really try to focus on the process, not wins and losses,” Fields said. “We focus on as many details as possible both on and off the field.”
Those details include maturity, respect, good behavior on and off the field, attending class and making the grades.
“That’s our focus,” Fields said.
And that focus is for 2014 and beyond.
“We can’t be thinking that this team is last year’s team,” Fields said. “That group is gone. We’ve got to start over.”