BRADENTON -- This time last spring, Saint Stephen's was searching for answers.
The Falcons were reeling from a winless 2011, their first under a new coaching staff, while dealing with dwindling enthusiasm a shrinking roster.
This spring, however, feels a bit different.
Winning a few games can have that effect.
"There's more buzz about it. There's a lot more people coming out and getting reps," said Bradley Beazant, a rising senior offensive lineman. "There's a lot more excitement."
The Falcons won three games last season. It's not a number that jumps out, but considering they won just two games combined in 2010 and '11 and closed last year with a win on the road against St. Petersburg Northside Christian, it's easy to see why there is a bit more bounce in everyone's step.
The goal is to build on that, beginning with Friday night's spring game at Bradenton Christian.
And while the Falcons will try to do so without guys such as Herman Israelsson, the program's all-time rushing leader (2,616 yards), coach Tod Creneti is confident they will get
"Some of the kids that were key to that turnaround are back, and that's a big part of it," said Creneti, entering his third season at Saint Stephen's, "and the other thing is it's not always about the bodies that come back. It's about the energy that comes back and the belief that comes back. And I think these guys believe now that they can be competitive, they can win football games. They don't have to go into every week wondering what's going happen; they feel they can dictate the tempo."
Signs of a turnaround began Sept. 15, when the Falcons nearly rallied back from an 11-point halftime deficit before falling 26-20 against Southwest Florida Christian.
"Coming out of that game, we sold our kids on that we're going to have to grind to be competitive. We're going to have to be physical, we need to be tougher, we need to outwork our opponents," Creneti said, "and that seemed to really make sense to our kids.
"Once we took the focus off what the other team was doing and focused on what we can do, the kids really bought in."
The Falcons beat Fort Myers Gateway Charter a week later for their first victory since 2010, a milestone that sparked Saint Stephen's to a split in its final four games.
"It was a relief. It took a lot of weight off our shoulders," Beazant said. "Also, when you win a game after that long of not winning a game, you try and think, 'Well, how good were they? Are we really improving, or was it just a one-off?' And then to win the other two in pretty convincing fashion. ... It felt pretty good to back it up."
The transformation began shortly after 2010 ended. Though they didn't win a game -- and their smallest margin of defeat was 15 points -- the Falcons still drew heavy numbers to the weight room for offseason workouts, pledging not to endure another year like that.
That sentiment has carried over to the spring, and the Falcons hope to dress about two dozen players Friday night against the rival Panthers.
"We lost a lot of key guys," said running back Luc Goeders, a rising junior. "But the juniors and seniors, we're ready to carry the torch. We're ready to move on from them and make our own legacy."
Initially assigned to Class 3A-District 6, the Falcons chose to compete as an independent this season when their appeal to move to another district was denied. But they'll be doing so in some pretty nice digs. After playing their home games at Palma Sola Park last year, the Falcons are set to move into their new on-campus facility this fall.
The $4.5 million project includes, among other things, a lighted stadium and a synthetic playing surface.
The Falcons hope to move onto the facility in October and are unsure about where they will play their first few home games.
"The school's starting to care; it's starting to back us up, and we're just happy to have our own facility," Goeders said, "have our own field, and hopefully, we can build from that."
"A few years ago, we didn't know whether the football program was going to keep going," he said. "Then we got our new coaching staff and things started building. Now that the school's recognizing it too, and it's not just us that believes we can do stuff, it does help you and it does give you a reason to believe in what's going on here."