SALISBURY — Sheka Walker has been Catawba football’s unofficial MVP in the offseason.
As the wife of head coach Curtis Walker, she’s kept her husband focused on the big picture.
“I’m a competitive guy and I want that winning right now and the whole staff wants it right now,” the coach said. “But it’s a process. My wife reminds me every day that it’s a process. It’s not going to happen in one day. We’ve just got to keep working toward our goals.”
Some work was done in the fall of 2013.
Catawba’s 6-5 record in Walker’s first year at the helm wasn’t anything to shoot off cannons about, not for a program that was a contender for Division II’s national title from 1999-2001 when Walker was a Catawba assistant. Still, after 3-8 and 4-7, 6-5 didn’t feel bad at all.
More work was done last spring. Still more work was done over the summer, and still more sweaty work has been done during this preseason by coaches and players.
Walker spoke every week in his debut season about “laying the foundation.” The on-field results were mostly positive. There were two steps forward for each step back, and the program is deeper and more talented now than it was two years ago, while the staff has stabilized after a transition period.
Walker has validated his selection as the choice to replace Chip Hester, a popular pillar of the community whose tenure couldn’t survive those bad bottom lines in 2011 and 2012.
Not that the Indians were world-beaters in 2013. They weren’t. The overall record was boosted by non-conference victories against Livingstone, West Liberty and North Greenville, but the Indians were only 3-4 and tied for fourth in the SAC. They were looking up at Carson-Newman, Newberry and national runner-up Lenoir-Rhyne.
Middle-of-the-pack is where the Indians should’ve been last year based on the statistics. Catawba had the eight-team league’s third-best defense but only the sixth-best offense.
If Walker is losing any sleep, it’s over the offense which is minus Danny O’Brien, excellent as a one-year lease at quarterback, and Nate Charest, one of the best receivers in school history.
Still, elusive receiver Carlos Tarrats and energetic running back David Burgess put the ball in the end zone eight times apiece as freshmen, Tyler Hamilton is a beast of a tight end, and Cary Littlejohn teamed with Burgess to produce nearly 1,000 rushing yards. That’s plenty of weapons for new quarterback Mike Sheehan, who backed up O’Brien last season.
“Mike is the smartest guy in our program — a .398 student — and we are confident he’ll operate our offense efficiently,” Walker said. “We’ve got good running backs returning and we’ve added a big back (215-pound freshman Eamon Smart) to that mix.”
Catawba’s offensive line, very young in 2013, is now seasoned and will be anchored by preseason All-SAC pick Taylor Fender.
“We had three of the o-line starters here all summer and four for half the summer,” Walker said. “That’s going to help our continuity with that group.”
Defensively, Catawba has a chance to be wicked. Leading tackler Jason Taylor returns as the anchor at linebacker. He has the look and demeanor of an All-American.
Former South Rowan star Mark McDaniel, hurt in the middle of last season, is a force in the secondary when he’s healthy, and the defensive front has everyone talking.
That’s because former SAC Freshman of the Year C.J. Barksdale is healthy after missing 2013 with injury, and so is touted Kegan Funderburk, a South Carolina Shrine Bowler who was recruited by big-time schools.
“Those two are game-changers,” Walker said. “Add them to a really strong group of returners (Jonathan Jean, Stephen Davis, Gabe Evans) and the defensive line can be the most productive position we have.”
Davis, who answers to “Yogi,” has lost 30 pounds and is in the best shape of his career.
“Our defensive line should be the best in our conference,” McDaniel said. “If they stay healthy, I don’t see many people being able to compete with those guys.”
The SAC is taking a wait-and-see attitude. The Indians haven’t won a SAC championship since 2007. That explains why they were picked sixth in the preseason by the league’s coaches.
On paper, the Indians are stouter than sixth and better than 6-5, but they still have to do it on the scoreboard.
“It’s Coach Walker’s second year, and we’re all used to everything now,” Taylor said confidently. “We’ve done the running, we’ve done the working out, and we’ve prepared ourselves to have a great season.”
The schedule is vastly different at the start, with road games at Davidson (Sept. 6) and Western Carolina (Sept. 13), replacing Livingstone and West Liberty.
“That’s because of the crazy new coach,” Walker said with a smile. “Davidson is close, and it was time to rekindle that rivalry. And playing a bigger school like Western will help us in our conference.”
Catawba may not return to regional prominence this season, but expect another step forward.
“It’s a process, and I have to remember that,” Walker said. “But some things are in place now. The older players have started pushing our young guys. We’re on track to building something good.”