It's one thing when the fans need to buy a scorecard to know the players, but, when the players could use one, too, that's another matter entirely.
That's the position in which the Williamsburg Blue Pirates found themselves heading into the season.
"We're almost a whole different team from last year,'' senior forward Mike McCall said.
McCall is one of two seniors on the Williamsburg roster, and the only one who played last year. All five Pirates starters graduated from last year's 14-9 team that lost to Blacklick Valley in the opening round of the District 6 Class A playoffs, and McCall and Jed Dishong were the only players back that got appreciable varsity playing time. Two players who figured to be contributors were coming off terrible injuries.
That usually doesn't bode very well. It especially didn't look good in an Inter-County Conference North Division where so many talented players from 2011 were underclassmen.
However, the Blue Pirates have beaten the odds this season by running off seven straight wins to open the season. They head into what could be a pivotal week with a 12-4 record and sitting in second place in the division at 9-3, a game and a half behind Bellwood-Antis and a half-game ahead of Mount Union.
The Pirates haven't exactly fattened up their record against the Sisters of the Poor, either. One of the smaller districts in the region, they've beaten five Class AA teams, including three that have winning records. They opened the year by winning their own tournament at the expense of two AA teams: Penns Valley, which is 6-7, and Central, which returned much of the nucleus from a playoff team the year before.
"I thought we'd be OK,'' McCall said. "But, after that first game, I was proud, because I didn't think we'd do that well.''
Williamsburg also has double-digit wins against two Class A teams with winning records - Juniata Valley and Glendale, although the Green Hornets returned the favor late last week.
Pirates coach Mike Farrell laughed when asked how the way the season has progressed jibed with how he thought it probably would go.
"Coming into the season, I felt we could maybe make it into the playoffs, maybe be .500. My assistant coach [Jeremy Ebersole] and I thought that might be realistic,'' Farrell said. "I'm ecstatic with the way we played early in the season, pleasantly surprised. At times, we've played above and beyond my expectations. That's for sure.''
The lack of experience isn't the only thing that has made Williamsburg's success this season surprising. The Blue Pirates aren't tall- McCall is only 6-foot, although he weighs about 220 pounds; junior Eli Fay and sophomore Cory Palmer are the tallest players at 6-3, but eight of the 15 players on the roster are under 6-0.
Williamsburg averages a respectable 60.4 points per game, but only two Pirates are averaging in double figures: Jed Dishong at 15.8 and Dalton Price, back from an all-terrain vehicle accident that sidelined him as a junior, at 14.3. Before the Juniata Valley game on Friday night, Williamsburg was shooting 36 percent from the field, 27 percent from 3-point range and 55 percent at the foul line.
Yet, the Pirates have found ways to win.
"We're definitely at our best when we play hustle basketball and playing very good defense and letting that translate into offensive opportunities,'' said Farrell's whose team is making seven steals per game. "Early on in the season, we were playing such good defense that we fell into a lot of offensive opportunities, and things went well for us. We shot the ball well, and, transitionally, we were playing well. That all translated into wins.''
McCall thought chemistry was another key factor in the Williamsburg's success. Although this group of Pirates never took the floor together as a varsity unit before this season, it was, essentially, the same team that posted a winning record last year in junior varsity and in junior high when he was a ninth grader.
"We're good friends. We all hang out together,'' McCall said. "We all practice pretty well together. We know what everyone on the team can do. If you can shoot, we'll kick out passes to you. If you can pass, we'll [cut to the basket].''
That closeness might seem unusual considering the class makeup of the team, with two seniors, a freshman and six players apiece in the junior and sophomore classes. McCall, though, said leadership hasn't been an issue, nor has any kind of communication gap.
"A lot of our guys, I think, are really mature,'' McCall said. "Like our sophomore, Caleb Morrissey, he stepped it up a lot this year. He's been playing really well. Jed, he's a nice leader, even though he's only a junior.''
Price's injury last season and the broken leg Fay sustained in summer league could have been disastrous, and, at the time, Farrell viewed those as big setbacks at the time. Instead, it opened the door for players like freshman Caleb Morrissey to get additional minutes and for other players to expand their roles to compensate for the absences of Price and Fay.
Farrell himself has taken something of an unusual route to get to this point. He didn't play organized basketball while coming up through the ranks at Altoona Area High School. Now 41, he took over coaching the Blue Pirates seven years ago for the popular Dave Cadle, stepping into what could have been a very difficult position in a community with so much history and passion in the sport.
Stressing defense first and remaining fairly level-tempered, has posted around a .500 career record. As he's seen his players grow, he thinks he's been growing as a coach, too.
"Mainly, I think it's impacted my comfort level,'' Farrell said. "I'm being more comfortable in putting our players in different situations, fitting them into places where they do well and trying to coach them into playing those roles. I still feel at times in some games that I wish I could do more. But these are players just executing what we've been doing.''
With the unexpected early success, the Blue Pirates' goals have been tweaked a bit, and, so have the expectations from both within and without. Farrell thinks that might have played a part in Williamsburg opposing scoring averages going up lately as the Pirates lost two out of three games.
With the team continuing a brutal four-game stretch that began with Juniata Valley and includes games with Bellwood, Glendale and Mount Union over eight days, he's hoping to just get back to the basics that worked so well for the Pirates so far this season.
"We really have to try to push through that and go back to playing the way we were,'' Farrell said. "Just go back to being a hustle team, be a team that doesn't expect things. Just go out and earn it, give it all you've got and may the best team win.''