Pearl River football tri-captain Mike O'Connell knows the expectations from outside are low for his team.
That happens when you return only one starter on offense and one on defense and your all-state kicker graduates.
O'Connell, like the rest of the Pirates' players and coaches, just refuses to lower his own expectations.
"It's not rebuilding in any way," O'Connell said. "We are going to keep going and ride with it all season."
Pearl River went 6-3 in its return to Class A last season, making the playoffs and holding on to the Little Brown Jug. This year's team will be smaller, younger and less experienced, but the message is consistent from Head Coach Jeff Michael on down. The Pirates expect to continue to move forward.
"That's a testament to their belief in themselves and each other," Michael said. "They are not worrying about guys who are gone. They are looking to continue the tradition from last year's team as last year's team continued from the previous year."
"Everyone is putting us down and looking past us," said junior quarterback Chris Van Houten. "We're going to keep going hard and bring a new squad and fight."
Van Houten will play a key role in Pearl River's success this season. The Pirates were a running team in 2011, but the plan in 2012 the will be spreading the field with Van Houten, a 6-foot-1 pocket passer, putting the ball in the air 20-to-30 times a game.
"He is very, very eager. He loves the idea of having the pressure on him," Michael said. "He loves having the weight of the world on his shoulders. He realizes he has athletes around him, so he knows he's got support. He wants to be the man and that's a great thing. It's not arrogance. It's just confidence."
Michael said he started letting Van Houten call his own plays during the 2012 KSA Events National Football Summer 7's tournament in Florida, just to see what he would do.
"Ninety percent of the time, he wants to put the ball in the air," Michael said. "He's a true pocket passer."
"We'll be spreading it out a lot this year, which I like," Van Houten said. "I think it's going to help our offense a lot. Whatever gets the job done; I'm fine with it. We've got a lot of speed. We've got to take advantage of that."
He will have a deep group of receivers to throw to, which got even stronger when senior Shane Ocasal transferred from Don Bosco Prep.
"He went to Bosco and came back. He's doing a great job on offense," Michael said. "He's got great hands. He's very good at route running. We expect a lot from him."
Early in camp, Ocasal was sharing time with junior Ronan Curry and senior Sean Brown at the split end spot where the Pirates play their top receiver, the role Sean Wilson played last season. Cle Davis topped the depth chart at the other split end with junior Kevin Considine in the slot.
Junior Rob Gullo will open as the halfback. He ran the ball 30 times for 177 yards (5.9 per carry) and caught four passes for 45 yards as a sophomore. Senior Eric Corcoran is the likely starter at fullback.
The biggest question coming into preseason practice was the offensive line, where senior Matt Erbacher is the lone returning starter. Senior tackle John Crilley and senior center Tom Muthig are also first-teamers in a group that began to come together at the end of the first week of practice.
"(Assistant coach) Joe Chiappa is doing a great job getting the linemen in shape," Michael said. "It's that one piece of the puzzle that is starting to come together."
Speed on Defense
Despite returning no starters, Michael expressed confidence in the defensive line from the beginning. Sean Quinlan, a 6-1, 230-pound tackle, will anchor the line from the middle, though the rest of the group lacks size.
"We will have that anchor in the middle and speed on the outside, which will hopefully set up some nice plays for our linebackers," Michael said.
Corcoran, Erbacher and Kevin Linnane will play three linebacker spots, with Gullo and Considine on the outside.
"The linebacking corps is ridiculous," Michael said of Corcoran, Urbacher and Linnane. "It's a trio of hard-hitting fast guys."
He said that O'Connell, Pat Gannon and Curry will likely start at the three defensive back spots, but plenty of athletes will rotate in.
"We're a very fast team," Michael said. "A gritty team."
The most recognizable name missing might be on special teams, where Connor O'Sullivan earned all-state honors as a kicker and punter last season. Curry, who played Gaelic football with O'Sullivan, will take on the dual role.
"Connor was a better placekicker, but I think Ronan is going to be a better punter," Michael said. "The kid can give the ball a ride. We told him he doesn't have to be Connor O'Sullivan, but his abilities are going to help us."