People say success breeds complacency. Those people haven't met the St. Ambrose football team.
The Fighting Bees are coming off a 2012 season that saw them go 9-2 and win the Mid-States Football Association Midwest League. Players received numerous awards and accolades. But they fell short in the first round of the NAIA playoffs, losing to Southern Oregon.
They bring back 15 starters from that team, none of whom are willing to rest on past success.
"Obviously, you bring a lot of game experience, a lot of starts," said head coach Mike Magistrelli during the team's media day Tuesday, "and we'll rely on that but also I think it's a hungry group, a group that experienced the playoffs and experienced some success but obviously came up short of the ultimate goal, winning a national championship."
Offensively, the Bees, who open the season at home against Taylor on Sept. 14, will be led by quarterback Eric Williamson. Williamson was named Midwest League player of the year last season after throwing for almost 3,000 yards and a school-record 35 touchdowns.
"With Eric, this is his third year as a starter, and what a luxury to have as a coach and a program, to have that experience and those reps back," Magistrelli said. "Eric’s not a vocal leader, but he certainly leads by example. He’s a tremendous competitor and certainly a leader on the offensive side even though he’s not a terribly vocal guy."
Williamson, who was named a preseason All-American, expects even greater success this year.
"I'm excited," he said. "This will be my third year starting so I've got this offense down. There's a ton of experience on this team so it's going to be an exciting year."
If Williamson expects to have a repeat performance, he'll have to do it without his top target from last year. Zach Grant transferred to the University of Illinois after his freshman season, taking with him 1,170 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns.
"Zach was a tremendous player for us," Magistrelli said, "and we’ll certainly miss him but a positive out of that situation is we had all spring to give other guys opportunities and we’ll see how the season plays out. We may not have that single top-end guy, but I don’t think there’s any question as a group collectively, we’re much better at wide receiver."
Williamson doesn't expect to miss a step.
"We won't have to adjust at all," he said. "We have other guys who can step up and I have just as good a chemistry with them as I did with Zach. I don't think it will slow us down at all."
Senior Sam O'Donnell figures to be a top receiving option. He had a breakout game in the playoff loss against Southern Oregon, catching nine passes for 157 yards and a touchdown.
Williamson also will have outlets in senior tight end Andrew Friederich, who was second team All-Midwest League last year and senior running back Cole Kelly, who also was all-conference.
"Even a year ago, we tried to be as balanced as we could," Magistrelli said. "There were certain weeks depending on what we got defensively where we may feature the run game a little more and the pass game a little more. We want to be able to do both and I feel like with our running game with Cole Kelly we’ll certainly have that week in and week out and then to complement with Eric and the pass game is what we strive for."
Defensively, the Bees are led again by Jeremy Wallace, who, like Williamson, prefers to lead with his play, not his voice.
"You're not going to hear him a whole lot, but you're certainly going to notice him," Magistrelli said. "He's a tremendous athlete. He's probably about as good of a linebacker as we've had and we've had some good linebackers over the years."
Wallace recorded a single-season school-record 141 tackles and was named an American Football Coaches' Association NAIA All-American last year, and was tabbed a preseason All-American this season.
"I’m trying not to think about stats and everything and all the awards from last season,'' Wallace said. "It’s a new year and I’ve still got stuff to prove. I think it’s just another year of playing with each other and I’m used to the guys I’m surrounded by and I think it’s only going to get better from here."
Behind Wallace will be a solid secondary that returns Jordan Bell, Sean Kelly and Steve Thomas, who combined for 155 tackles and four interceptions.
The Bees begin the season ranked 11th in the preseason coaches' poll, but have a tough schedule. Two of their opponents are ranked in the top five on the same preseason poll, including fifth-ranked Saint Francis (Ind.), who the Bees play in the second week of the season.
"It's certainly a great honor to be ranked nationally, Magistrelli said. "We do have a lot of ranked opponents on our schedule which is great because it’s a tremendous challenge. It will keep our focus and attention sharp, our preparation from week to week. If we play good football week in and week out we have a chance to move up in the rankings."