Discouraged? Not hardly

As the saying goes, in this world there are lies, damn lies--and then there are statistics. Absent proper context, numbers really can be deceiving. And none more so than the digits '3 and 4.' <br><br>After seven games both the 2000 and 2001 Tide teams shared that record, but the similarities end there. "We're a closer-knit team than last year," said junior linebacker Saleem Rasheed. "We're going to stick together. We're going to bounce back."

Sophomore tailback Santonio Beard agreed. "This year we're together as a team, and we won't quit. In the last couple of years we wouldn't always give it our all late in games, but now I think we're more of a team. When we get behind we keep fighting to get back in it."

In recent games sophomore Santonio Beard has run very well at tailback.

No one is happy with a losing season--least of all fans of the Crimson Tide. Decades of championship contenders produced an expectation of success. And 'rebuilding year' is not a phrase most Bama fans are accustomed to using.

But despite losing their third straight conference game last weekend, the Tide players refuse to listen to the negative talk. "I'm not discouraged at all," said junior strong safety Waine Bacon. "And I don't think anybody on this team is. We fought hard last weekend. Our time is going to come. We've just got to make the big plays, and our time will come."

Junior center Alonzo Ephraim, rapidly becoming the leader of Bama's offensive line, agreed. "I'm not discouraged. Actually, what we're going through gives me more motivation. I'm determined to do better. It gives you more of a drive to improve instead of stopping and being satisfied.

"We did some good things Saturday against the eleventh-ranked team in the nation. That's something to build on. As long as we're building and come out here with a good attitude in practice, then we'll be fine."

A former walk-on, Bacon has been Bama's best safety this season.

"Discouraged? About what?!?" was junior tight end Theo Sanders' indignant response to the suggestion. "I'm not discouraged. We're coming along. Everything takes time. We've just got to ride this thing out.

"This is a new program. Basically we're still learning, but we're coming along. We haven't got too far to go. We're almost there. We definitely don't have anything to be discouraged about."

It's not that the players don't know where they stand--not at all. Better than any fan could possibly understand, these athletes have lived through the disappointment of the last several weeks.

Losing hurts.

And close losses hurt that much more.

But the players are mature enough to recognize that obsessing over what might have been isn't the answer. "Negative things have happened," Ephraim acknowledged. "But we have to look at the positives. If we keep looking at the negatives, then we won't be a good team at all. We won't have any chance to go to a bowl game or anything.

The solid play of Theo Sanders at tight end has been a bright spot this year.

"It's better to look at the positives. Say, 'We did this successfully, so let's build on it more. These are our mistakes, so let's get them corrected.' It's all an inside drive that you have to have for yourself--the desire to improve. The great players that are good strive to get even better. Guys that stay at their level will never be great players--and the same for teams."

Last year's edition of the Crimson Tide let things slip away. Though the players showed up for every game, there were times when the ultimate outcome seemed to be a forgone conclusion.

But as Sanders pointed out, the 2001 season has been different. Three of the four losses were to Top-Ten caliber teams, and the Tide has had a legitimate chance to win every game. "The important thing is we can't let it play with our confidence," Rasheed said. "We've got to believe that we can win fourth-quarter ballgames. It's tough and frustrating to be in so many close games and come up short, but we've just got to battle back out."

"As much as we've gone through last year and with the NCAA investigation, success will mean a lot to this team," Beard added. "We need a win to carry over to the next weeks and hopefully the rest of the season."

Letting winnable games against South Carolina and Ole Miss slip away has certainly lengthened the odds, but Alabama still has plenty to play for. Bacon explained; "Our season isn't over yet. We still have a chance to make it to a bowl game. We've even got a long shot of making it to the SEC championship--we'd need help from other people for that. But we've got four games left, and we can finish with a good record."

Though little used in previous years, Alonzo Ephraim has been the Tide's most consistent offensive lineman this season.

Determined to take a 'one game at a time' approach to the season, the Tide coaching staff has echoed those sentiments. But any team faced with adversity will look to its older athletes for leadership. "I tell the younger guys to keep their heads up," Sanders said. "Things are turning. We're going to make a turnaround."

"Keep working hard and learn from this," Ephraim added. "You're going to have your ups and downs, but it's how you react to them that counts."

Ephraim continued his advice to the squad's younger players. "Look around, and you'll find leaders in the locker room. Get behind them, and follow them. One day it'll be your chance to be that leader, and you'll have to step up."

Though normally low-key in his approach to almost everything, Rasheed's comments call to mind memories of storied locker-room speeches from the past. "Keep your heads up. Keep your confidence. Keep fighting hard. Don't let this play with your confidence.

"Keep fighting hard and believe that you're going to win that next ball game. Never lose confidence. Never lose focus."

"It's a new beginning," Rasheed concluded. "We've got four games left on our schedule, and we want to concentrate on winning those ballgames."

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