Expectations have changed at LaGrange College.
One 9-2 season took care of that.
After back-to-back 0-10 seasons, LaGrange College’s outlook received a major boost with the surprising nine-win season in 2008. The Panthers posted the biggest turnaround in Division III history and won the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship and an at-large bid to the Division III playoffs.
It was an abrupt change as coach Todd Mooney and his staff moved from looking for the Panthers’ first win to relishing the program’s first winning season.
Now Mooney knows he’ll be expected to deliver another winning season. He’s pleased to have those increased expectations.
“That’s where we want to be,” Mooney said. “There are expectations now. We finished 9-2 and return 19 starters. I think we all have pretty lofty expectations, and we want to make sure we go out and finish what we started.”
Senior linebacker Richard Okpani said the team is proud of its 2008 success and wants to make sure it builds on the momentum.
“We’re walking with our heads up high now,” Okpani said. “It’s a very rewarding process. Coming in with a losing record and turning it around was awesome, incredible. It makes you know hard work doesn’t go to waste.”
Mooney returns junior quarterback Drew Carter, senior running back Mario Wallace, two starting receivers and four offensive linemen on offense.
Carter, a junior, completed 51.6 percent of his passes last season for 2,282 yards with 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Wallace, a 5-foot-9 senior, rushed for 1,020 yards with 13 touchdowns.
Ten starters are back on defense. Okpani had 53 tackles and two sacks last season.
Of LaGrange’s 19 returning starters, 13 are seniors and six are juniors, but Okpani said the younger players have not been forgotten.
“Hopefully everybody will be able to do a lot better as our team grows,” Okpani said. “I think we’ve set a good standard for the young kids coming up.”
Mooney said he expects continued improvement but also knows LaGrange’s Division III competition will improve.
“I think every year we’re going to play better people,” he said. “Our guys are working really hard to become better football players, and everybody on our schedule is doing the same thing. I feel very, very confident in our team. and I think as long as we can keep the injury bug away, we’re going to have a lot of fun this year.”
LaGrange opened last season with a narrow win at Birmingham-Southern before losing at home to Shorter. The Panthers then won eight straight games before a 51-26 loss at Millsaps in the Division III playoffs.
It may be difficult for the Panthers to avoid looking back at their breakthrough season.
“You can’t forget something like this,” Okpani said. “It’s something I can tell my grandkids, my great-grandkids, hopefully.”