When the Montreat College men's basketball team opened its season last year, few knew what to expect. The Cavaliers went on to post a 19-10 record, the program's best in a decade.
This season, ranked 23rd in the preseason National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics DII coaches' poll, Montreat won't be sneaking up on anyone, but they don't believe they need to.
Garrett Jones is entering his third season as the head coach of the Cavaliers. He was proud of his team's performance last year, but sees the season as a foundation for something better.
"We had a completely new roster," he said. "We had a really good year, but obviously we didn't finish as strong as we hoped. But it was the kind of year we can build on, and with so many guys coming back that's what we're looking to do."
Montreat was 4-20 in Jones' first year at the helm, but the season was not without highlights. Alonzo Mobley burst on the scene, earning freshman of the year honors in the Appalachian Athletic Conference.
Mobley, who earned all-conference honors last season, is the only player from that team remaining on the Cavalier's roster. Last season, he was joined by 6-foot-7 forward David Everage, who transferred from Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho and 6-foot-4 forward Jeron Hemphill from Caldwell Community College in Hudson and a cast of athletic guards, including Terrell Sheffey.
Everage's strong presence in the paint on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor earned him a spot on the all-conference second team, while Sheffey played his way to a spot on the all-freshmen squad.
Montreat won their first five games last season and on pace to win 20, but the young age of the roster began to show late in the season when they dropped six of their final nine, including a first-round loss to Allen University in the conference tournament.
"Looking back, the difference between winning 19 and winning 22, 23, 25 games is really just small details," Jones said. "Guys that are older and more mature really understand how important those details are, more than a freshman or a sophomore."
Everage is entering his senior season, while Mobley and Hemphill are juniors.
Reflecting on last season, Everage said it's easy to see where the team lacked focus at times.
"We had a great season, but there were things we needed to improve on," he said.
Everage made a commitment to being a more vocal leader in his senior season, and he and his teammates remained in touch throughout the summer.
"We're starting to come together more than before because we know we fell short last year," he said. "We had a chance to make it to the national tournament last year, and that was a goal, but we fell short."
That motivated guys to improve heading into this season, and that reflected in the conditioning of the players, according to Everage.
"A lot of our guys who live near each other were able to work out together and play in a couple of leagues together," he said. "Once we all came back to campus everything was smoother."
The Cavaliers certainly looked good in their season opener against Bob Jones University in the McAlister Gymnasium on Oct. 27. They put up 101 points while holding the Bruins to 71, in front of a packed house.
But adversity will come at some point this season, and that will be the true test of this team, Jones believes.
"How are we going to respond when we're down seven on the road in a tough environment?" he said. "The difference between a good season and a great season is a team's ability to win close games, and in close games there's usually adversity."
Players understand that, according to Everage.
"We'll make a mistake or let something happen and another team will have a big play and score," he said. "It's how we respond to that as a unit and realize 'OK, we made a mistake, but that won't define this game or who we are.'"
On the court, who the Cavaliers are starts on the defensive side of the ball, Jones said.
"Our guys have to buy into understanding the value of defense, night in and night out," he said. "Especially early in the season when your half court offense and execution may not be what it is in March."
Paying attention to details and putting in maximum effort on the defensive side of the ball will help the Cavaliers build on their 19-win season a year ago, Everage said.
"Honestly, we're all set on winning a conference championship," he said. "Our expectations are high, not because of what anyone else is saying, but because we know what kind of work we're putting in and what we can accomplish together."