It's probably unfair to call the 2012 season a step backward for the Merced College football team.
That may depend on your definition of a step backward.
The 3-7 record it posted was certainly unexpected. The junior college game is particularly difficult to predict, but I never believed for one second with what the Blue Devils returned, that they could finish worse than last season's 4-6 mark.
But while the record was a definite disappointment, the program didn't necessarily revert.
Guys fought hard until the final snap. Even with the team's struggles, there wasn't the midway mass exodus that MC teams have experienced in the past. And even with only pride on the line, guys remained disciplined from start to finish.
But while the Blue Devils may not have lost ground, MC certainly missed a golden opportunity to gain some.
Coaches like to keep external expectations close to the vest. You don't hear a lot of bold predictions spoken outside of the locker room, but to a man, the MC staff thought this was the year they turned things around.
Head coach Bob Casey spoke openly of a winning record and the hopes for a bowl game. Those are courageous statements for a program that hadn't seen either in 14 years.
In truth, the Blue Devils came far closer to those goals a year ago when they lost four games by a total of 16 points.
There were three teams on the 2012 schedule that outclassed MC personnel-
wise, but on any given Saturday, it was still capable of beating them. Those games aside, that left seven very winnable games there for the taking.
The Blue Devils simply didn't give themselves the opportunity to compete in enough of those contests.
So where was the disconnect? How could Casey, his staff and myself have been so wrong?
The truth is, that highly touted sophomore class that played so well as freshmen, badly underachieved.
MC got no consistency at quarterback, running back or on the offensive line. The line, linebackers and secondary all struggled at times on the defensive side as well. Guys were shuffled in and out of the lineup in the hopes that someone would seize the jobs, but few did.
It was something Casey never saw coming.
Numerous college coaches I've talked to over the years agree that the biggest developmental leap collegiate athletes make is from their freshman year to their sophomore campaign.
MC was banking on that, but for whatever reason, it didn't show up on the field.
The freshman class offered little in relief. Comprised mainly of hard-working role players, there weren't a lot of options to fill the void.
So where does MC go from here? It's tough to say.
On paper the team isn't returning much in the way of dynamic players, but as was the case this season, you just never know some guys will develop.
Casey acknowledges his recruiting approach needs to be improved.
When you're building a program with a base of local kids, the best ones can't be allowed to continually slip through your fingers.
Casey's got the assistants to be able to help him out and should lean on them. The first step is shoring up relationships with the local high school coaches. The more guys they have chatting them up, the easier that will be to do.
A lot of last year's top talent went on to four-year schools, but the 2013 class is much deeper. MC needs to take advantage of this.
A winning season probably would have made things easier, but there's still plenty of good selling points. The most obvious is that despite a 15th straight season without a winning record, the Blue Devils move on as many kids to four-year schools as any program in the surrounding area.
It also needs to continue to poach talent from the historically Modesto Junior College and Fresno City College talent pools.
We simply don't produce enough players to make it a Merced County only team.
Depth has been the program's Achilles' heel the last few years, and opponents have pounced on it mercilessly.
Honestly, all it takes is one great class to turn a JC team around.
I don't know that next season holds that for MC, but much like Rome, championship programs are seldom patched together in three years.
The 2012 season wasn't the major step forward the Blue Devils were looking for, but even baby steps bring them closer to the light at the tunnel's end.
Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.