Is that just another old bromide of college sports, such as 'It's tough to beat a team three times in one season', or is there something to the fact that everyone, from coaches to staff to players, have more experience and know what to expect?
Ask any coach about play on the field, and he'll tell you that experience, next to talent, is among the most important of factors. Players that can execute assignments without thinking, without hesitation, are more likely to succeed than those that have to analyze before they act.
Does the same, then, hold true for the program as a whole? Stewart certainly thinks so, and is looking forward to his second year as head coach of the Mountaineers.
"We had to establish some groundwork and put in what I felt was our plan and our system," he said during the Big East's Media Day. I know what we are doing. Our coaches did a great job implementing that plan, and most important our players did too. Our players have done a great job, so it has not been a problem."
Stewart has certainly established the ground rules of his program, both on and off the field, having suspended and dismissed players for various transgressions. He has also shown a willingness to give second chances in those cases that he felt warranted, and has thus developed a reputation as a no-nonsense, yet compassionate leader. While that is important, it's often overlooked by fans, who count wins and losses as the only measuring stick, and while that might be unfair, it's the world in which coaches live. So, back to the question. Does year two bring an automatic bounce, and perhaps an extra win or two, just because everyone is more comfortable with everything in the program?
The answer, from this perspective, is yes...given that some other factor, such as injuries or a great reduction in talent, doesn't negate it. The first, of course, is out of anyone's control. The second, to some extent is as well, although recruiting success is expected to continue the pipeline of talent.
The wildcard, of course, is the graduation of Pat White. Replacing talented players is one thing, but replacing the greatest player to ever wear the uniform is another. One of the keys to the season will be just that – the first time a game is on the line, will someone be in line to make a play? For the last 3 1/2 years, it was White, and sometimes the Mountaineers were caught looking and waiting for White to do it himself. On the very few occasions when he came up short, there weren't any other candidates ready to go.
Thus, the biggest thing West Virginia needs to help augment the second year bounce is finding those players. The obvious candidates are already in place, but Stewart noted that those players can't be forced into the position.
"You can try to assist and help one, but leaders are made," he said of the process by which team leaders are forged. "They are made by perseverance and patience and trusting in the plan. Jarrett Brown needs to be our offensive leader, just like Reed Williams needs to be our defensive leader. The players like [Jarrett], they rally around him and they respond to him."
Certainly there are a number of other issues that must be resolved in a positive manner if West Virginia is to contend for the Big East title, and many of those have been discussed several times during the past spring and summer. WVU does have the second-year bounce going for it in 2009, however, and if it can get the leadership that Stewart is looking for, it could be another very successful season for his team.
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Stewart knows, however, that there are a number of schools that also have designs on a championship run. In reality, only Louisville and Syracuse look to be out of such positioning. There are two ways of looking at the race. One is that the Big East isn't that good, which is what brings more teams into the mix. The other, one espoused by Stewart and his peers, is of quality depth.
"I don't call it parity, I call it great competition," said the ever-positive Mountaineer coach. "We are one of five or six teams that can win it. It will start off with a bang with Cincinnati and Rutgers on the first weekend, and it will end with some great matchups on championship weekend (Dec. 5)."