The preseason is usually a time to be optimistic, particularly for teams that have won only two conference games the past three seasons. Goodness knows they may never get another chance.
Such is not the case at Cal Lutheran, where Coach Bob Shoup has been forced to become a realist.
"We are not real talented, and we are not real big on defense," Shoup said. "But the general attitude has been good."
Exactly how many games the Kingsmen can win on attitude alone is in question. Last season, Cal Lutheran went 5-6 but won only one of six games in the Western Football Conference.
This season's goal: "We'd like to be competitive in every game," Shoup said.
It is safe to say most coaches have their sights set a bit higher. But perhaps it is better for the Kingsmen to think small. CLU's administration is not sold on trying to compete in Division II after its football teams went 166-55-6 in the National Assn. of Interscholastic Athletics from 1962-84. A faculty committee has been formed to study a move to NCAA Division III.
Shoup says it was simply not realistic to expect the same success against schools many times larger.
"We knew going Division II was a great challenge, but we were running out of choices," he said. "Azusa, La Verne, schools we've traditionally had good success against, beating them was not a remarkable achievement."
Cal Lutheran is improving each season, Shoup insists, it is just not very noticeable.
"The problem is the more rapidly we improve, the conference improves," Shoup said. "It's one of those things where you work hard just to stay where you are. The conference is too strong for us as we stand today."
For the past four seasons Cal Lutheran stock fluctuated on the performance of quarterback Tom Bonds, who is now a stockbroker. His loss makes casting one's lot with the Kingsmen a high-risk investment.
"There will never be another Tom Bonds," Shoup said of the quarterback who passed for 7,773 yards. "What we are trying to establish this year is that we're not dependent on one player."
Jim Bees, a junior, leads a contingent of five quarterbacks of almost equal ability. "As a group, they're not all that much behind Bonds," Shoup said. "Probably none of them will be as good, but they're good enough to where we feel like that's an area of strength."
Shoup describes Bees as a superior athlete who is working on his leadership ability.
He also would be wise to hone his scrambling skills. Of Cal Lutheran's 10 offensive lineman, only one is a senior. "At this point, the line is really suspect," Shoup said.
If the line holds up, Bees has a couple of sure-handed tight ends to throw to in 6-foot, 6-inch David Deisinger and 6-4, 270-pound Ken Whitney. John Bankhead (37 catches, 787 yards, 5 touchdowns) is one of the WFC's fastest receivers.
Cal Lutheran's strength is its linebackers. Shoup says Torii Lehr and Mark McGrath are among the most mobile at their position in the WFC. This is another way of saying they are small. Lehr is 5-11, 200 pounds and McGrath is 6-2, 190, but both were among the conference leaders in tackles last season.
Even that impressive statistic has to be qualified. "Granted, our linebackers had a lot of those tackles because our defensive line didn't do the job," Shoup said.
Indeed, the Kingsmen gave up a conference-high 186 points in six WFC games. More bad news: Four of the teams, including defending champion Portland State, have backfields returning almost intact.
Shoup can only try to rally his team around the challenge ahead.
"Getting the chance to play the best is a privilege," he said. "If you beat Cal Poly, Santa Clara, Portland or a Northridge, it seems to me that's something special."
It is not, however, easy. And that is something of which Cal Lutheran players and coaches are well aware.
Said Shoup: "It's not like we have a bunch of Sunday school kids who don't know what's down the road in terms of hazards."