It's a time of anticipation and improvement, of teaching and learning.
It's spring football.
Ashland University's football team, about 90 players strong, has two spring practices under its belt, en route to 14 practices and three scrimmages leading up to the annual Purple & Gold Game on April 21 at 7 p.m., then the Alumni Golf Outing on April 22 at 10 a.m. at the Ashland Golf Club.
"The retention's been very good," said Ashland head coach Lee Owens. "Retention not only with the players, but with the coaches. There's an anticipation of what could be a real special season in 2016."
The Eagles, coming off a 2015 season in which they went 10-1, won a share of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship and made the NCAA Division II postseason, will scrimmage three Saturdays (April 2, 9 and 16) at 9 a.m. leading up to the Purple & Gold Game at Jack Miller Stadium/Martinelli Field.
"We've had an unbelievable offseason. Nobody was happy with the way things ended in 2015 in the tournament," said Owens, referring to the Eagles' 45-28 home Super Region 4 quarterfinal loss to Grand Valley State following an undefeated regular season. "It kind of led to a great offseason, but we really have a group of guys with a lot of experience coming back, we have a group of guys that are really disciplined, accountable. There's great leaders.
"Expectations are high. At the same time, they're high not because of what happened last year. They're high because we know what sits in that locker room. And if everyone gives the kind of effort from this point forward through spring that we've gotten in the offseason, we'll put ourselves in a position where we can have a really good season."
During spring practice, some of the top position battles will come at backup tailback, backup quarterback and backup offensive linemen. Quarterback-punter Austin Bruns, going into his senior season, will stay in those two positions, but also will see more time at tight end.
"Both those guys, we've got to get reps and looks and see which guy ends up emerging," Owens said. "That's the biggest battle, I think, of the spring.
"We lost three senior running backs, so we need to find out who can run the ball for us," Owens continued about the spot behind senior-to-be Vance Settlemire. "There's a lot of guys we need to look at."
Along the offensive line, center Dominic Giunta returns from a season-long injury suffered in last year's spring game. His return moves Matt Murphy over to left guard, so the line basically returns intact.
Defensively and on special teams, there aren't as many position battles, but there is just as much depth.
"We're as deep at linebacker, we're as deep at defensive line, we're as deep at safety as we've been," said Owens.
Given Giunta's spring-game injury in 2015, this year's Purple & Gold Game may look a bit different.
"We've talked a lot about that, and we are approaching this spring differently than we have in many of the springs," Owens said. "There's a lot of guys that have played a lot of football for us that don't need a lot of live scrimmaging in the spring. We don't need to take any chances.
"I think you'll see a lot more young guys scrimmaging. Those scrimmages are going to be more designed towards giving our backups and young players a chance to develop. You may see a spring game where you see a veteran group of guys have some kind of glorified 7-on-7 in the first half, and in the second half, you let the live guys scrimmage for the second half."
The silent auction will be open at 6:30 p.m. on April 21, a half-hour prior to kickoff. The auction winners will be announced during the third quarter.
During the spring game, former Eagle linebacker D.J. Shaw, the head football coach at Midview High School, will be recognized as the 2016 Martinelli Coach of the Year. In addition, whip Chris Ranc will receive the team's academic award, and all of the team's academic awards will be presented.
The golf outing will be a shotgun start and a scramble format. Dinner and prizes begin at 3 p.m. on April 22.
"In years past when we've had the game on a Thursday night, we've gotten great response from the student body," Owens said. "The students like to come over, and we make it a lot of fun. It's become a real event on campus, and in the community, for those people who just need a football fix at that time of year.
"And then to be able to have all the alums be able to stick around and play golf the next day, that's always a fun time and a good tournament."
The spring game, silent auction and golf outing are sponsored by Mansfield Distributing.
For more information on the golf outing, go to http://goo.gl/Y4c33K.