The football team will be kicking off their season Saturday at North Park University. It will be their first official game under rookie head coach Steve Rock. Besides the obvious mission of winning more games this season, Coach Rock aims to establish a new standard for his team.
Following a season where the team sported a gruesome 1-9 record, the Ravens were voted to finish eighth in the conference. The team seeks a turnaround with a new coaching staff and 48 freshmen from around the country.
The primary focus of the team was to bring in a coach who is familiar with a winning culture. Dr. Chris Confer, assistant provost and dean of students, said the university was looking to bring in the right man for the job.
“We knew what we were looking for in that process. We had some ideas of who we specifically wanted to tap on the shoulder in our search,” said Confer. “The quality of what Coach Rock was bringing set him apart in the process for sure. He comes from a very successful program and understands what a successful team looks like.”
Coach Rock joins the team after spending 11 years at Franklin College, where the team won 10 HCAC championships. He hopes to carry that success over during his tenure at AU.
One of the ways that they plan to turn the program around began in training camp, where the team spent two weeks sleeping on the gym floor together.
“That came from the concept of wanting to develop a true team atmosphere,” said Rock. “When guys come to campus and they’re reporting together for the first time it’s very important that we spend a lot of time together.”
“We’ve talked about having our players above a certain line. This line is the standard. We need to be above the standard,” said Rock. “There have been a lot of guys here in the past who have done some below-the-line things and that’s what we are trying to change.”
Players have a new outlook on their roles representing the university, as well as a new focus on growing together as a family. John Mendoza, a 21-year-old freshman, spent his first few years out of high school serving in the U.S. Army. He says this team is already closer than any team he’s been a part of.
“The culture is nice, it feels like a family. We trust each other and we all have the same mindset about what to do,” said Mendoza.
He also talked about how the Army has helped him grow into a man, allowing him to help guide some of the younger players.
“Mentally, the Army pushed me to my limits, and I know what I can handle,” said Mendoza. “Also the aspect of being a leader in the Army has helped me too. It helps me show the younger guys that you can be a leader no matter how old you are.”
The addition of qualified assistants has also helped Rock reshape the program into one focused on winning and developing players into strong men.
Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Young has joined the staff for his first season in full control of a defense. He brings experience from multiple schools across the country to the program, and hopes to usher in a new culture. Despite the team’s youth, he believes that they can be competitive right off the bat.
“When you come out and watch us, you are going to be like, man these guys are fast,” said Young. He believes that even though most of the teams on their schedule will have more experienced players, the Ravens will be able to stay competitive with their speed.
Another issue that has plagued the football program is their inability to retain players under the old coaching staff. Rock believes that the system they have in place will be able to change that.
“The idea is that you get enough guys to come in and commit to the program, and they learn to work together as a team,” said Rock. “Then you get those guys to buy in and stay until they are juniors and seniors. Then you start to think, ‘Okay, we can be successful now.’”
There is no doubt that this team is unique compared to the squads over the past few seasons. Whether they see a big turnaround in Rock’s first season or not won’t be decided until the games are played, but the Raven’s hope for a resurgence in not only the program, but in the school’s outlook on the team.
The Ravens will kick off thier season at North Park University and will play their first home game Sept. 9 against Indiana Wesleyan University.