The Southeast Missouri State gymnastics season hasn't even started yet, and already the Redhawks are fighting an uphill battled due to injuries.
But eternally optimistic coach Tom Farden is not about to throw in the towel.
"Never. You never do that," a smiling Farden said Thursday. "I don't want to make any predictions, but we have the potential to have a strong team."
The youthful, inexperienced Redhawks -- they feature eight freshmen among their 12 healthy gymnasts -- have their first meet Saturday at the Kentucky Triangular that also includes Illinois State. Kentucky is ranked 23rd nationally.
That's just the beginning of a rugged schedule for Southeast, which also faces top-25 teams Missouri, Denver, Iowa and Arizona. The Redhawks' home opener is Jan. 27 against Winona State.
"We've always had pretty tough schedules, but this one is tougher than most," said Farden, whose squad was 6-8 overall last year, including 4-4 in duals. "When I made the schedule out, I didn't know about the injuries."
Southeast will be without two of its top returning competitors from last year the entire season.
Senior Tara Boldt, a two-time regional qualifier who was the 2005 Midwest Independent Conference co-gymnast of the year, suffered a torn Achilles tendon early during practice.
Boldt would have likely been eligible for a final season next year, but she contracted an infection after her surgery and recently had a second surgery, meaning her career is likely over.
"It would probably be too tough to come back from that," Farden said. "It's really a shame for Tara, but she had a great career here."
Junior Lexie Hein had back surgery early during practice, although she should be able to return next season.
"It's really disappointing not to have those two this year," Farden said. "It's hard to replace a leader like Tara."
Southeast's only healthy senior is Amanda Grimes, while the lone healthy junior is Brystol Powelski, who missed most of last year with an injury.
"We'll be counting on them for a lot of leadership," Farden said.
Grimes believes the Redhawks will be able to pick up the slack in the absence of Boldt and Hein.
"We've had time to prepare," Grimes said. "Everybody knows what they have to do to get it done."
Two sophomores, Alison Ezell and Danyelle Aber, return after strong rookie seasons. Ezell was the 2005 Midwest Independent Conference co-newcomer of the year.
"They both did real well as freshman and we'll be looking for big things again," Farden said.
Much of the Redhawks' hopes will ride on what Farden regards as the best freshmen class in his seven years at Southeast.
Sandra Blake, Jennifer Dinan, Maureen Grimaldi, Alex King, Starlyn Bell Schwartz, Kelsey Stauffer, Erika Thomas and Chelsea Unold could all figure into the regular rotation.
"Some we'll really count on, and all eight could plug in from time to time," said Farden, in his third season as the Redhawks' coach after previously serving as an assistant. "It's the best freshmen group I've had."
Blake was particularly impressive during Southeast's intrasquad meet last month. She, like Grimes, believes the Redhawks will be fine despite the loss of the two key gymnasts.
"We'll all have to pick up the slack, but we can do it," Blake said.
Farden is counting on that.
"With so many freshmen, there could be a chance for some inconsistency, but the skill level is really high, the highest in my seven years here," Farden said. "I guess it's a baptism by fire, but I still think we can do well. And it's building a strong foundation for years to come."