Even while he was sitting in the surreal quiet of the Dick’s Sporting Goods Park bathroom last May as tornado sirens blared in the distance, Chapman head coach Dallas Hartley believed he had a team that could contend for the MCLA national title. He already saw that Michigan was down from previous years, opening the door for any of the top five teams to grab the ring.
After the skies cleared in Denver and the Panthers lost to Arizona State – the same team they had defeated a week before in the SLC title game – in the quarterfinals, Hartley still felt like he had a contender.
“We were better than where we finished,” said Hartley, who readily admits that he didn’t make enough adjustments in the second meeting with the Sun Devils. “I’m laying that one on the coaching staff more than on the players. We felt like we were better than that.”
Just a couple of weeks into the 2012 season, Hartley and his team get a chance to take on virtually the same BYU team that Arizona State lost to in the ’11 finals. Granted, this edition of the Panthers is nothing like last year’s. Chapman lost all three starting close defenders – two to graduation and a third to attrition – from last year and now must face the most prolific offense around.
“Can we stop what is probably the most balanced attack in the MCLA? They return everybody,” said Hartley of the Cougars. “How are we doing defensively against that attack? We think that we’ll be very good defensively in due time, but we’re still working out the kinks; we’ve got to figure out match-ups. We’ve got three very good defenders; we just have to make sure we get them on the right guys.”
The contest, set for 7 p.m. PT on Saturday night, is the biggest game of the MCLA calendar to this point, and Hartley is expecting to match the 2,500 fans that showed up for last year’s regular season game against Michigan.
Playing in front of that kind of crowd was new to Hartley in 2011 – his first year at the helm of the Panthers after taking over for Mike Wood. Whether it’s large crowds or simply understanding his team, Hartley is much more comfortable entering this spring.
“It’s 100 times better,” said Hartley. “Just knowing the personnel and who to put in charge, who my leaders are and who to lean on. So much of coaching is how you motivate kids; how you break them down and build them up. That’s what I struggled with the most last year.
“We’ve been working on the chemistry. Some coaches don’t think it’s a factor and I happen to think it’s the biggest factor. Our team gets along and we play for the right reasons. I think a win would go a long way for us mentally, but I think the guys believe we can beat any team we play.”
Chapman has to be careful about looking too far ahead. While BYU is the marquee game of the weekend, the Panthers play a talented Santa Clara team on Friday that would like nothing more than to take advantage of a distracted, high-end opponent to score points with the selection committee.
This isn’t lost on Hartley, who has kept the Mustangs front and center during preparations this week. Still, it’s easy to look ahead to the BYU game and all of the weight that it holds.
“I think the pressure in on them coming to our place,” said Hartley of the Cougars. “We just want to play our game. We just want to see how it shakes out this early in the season.”