Even though the record didn't indicate it, Southeast Missouri State football coach Tony Samuel felt all along that the Redhawks were making strides this season.
Samuel hopes the way the year ended -- with Saturday's 32-25 comeback win over perennial Ohio Valley Conference power Jacksonville State -- shows his young squad that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
"It was a great win, one, because Jacksonville State is a great football team, and two, sometimes a win like that is what a young team needs to get it going in the right direction," Samuel said Monday. "We are making strides. I think this game pointed us in the right direction."
The Redhawks ended Samuel's second season 3-8 overall and 1-6 in the OVC, after Samuel's first Southeast team went 4-7 overall and 2-6 in league play.
In 17 Division I-AA seasons, Southeast has had just two winning records. The program's all-time mark on the Division I-AA level is 65-125.
"There was a lot of work to do when I got here, and we still have a lot of work to do," said Samuel, whose 7-15 record the past two years is actually an improvement from the two seasons immediately before his arrival, when Southeast went 5-17.
Southeast had only nine seniors this year, and just a handful of those were full-time starters, meaning the Redhawks should have most of their key players returning.
Some people might say that's not a good thing, since the Redhawks were outscored 387-225 overall and 246-154 in OVC games, but Samuel insists that he likes the talent he and his staff have assembled.
Samuel believes the way the Redhawks played in Saturday's season finale -- along with a few of their other strong performances -- demonstrates their potential.
"We had a couple of good games like this," Samuel said. "If you look at what we did in that game, I think the potential is there.
"We have some talent ... young talent ... we played quite a few freshmen."
Among the top players Southeast loses to graduation are senior linebacker Adam Casper, the OVC's leading tackler with 112 stops (ranking 12th nationally); tight end Joseph Tuineau, the Redhawks' second-leading receiver; and four-year offensive line starter Francisco Perez.
Offensively, among the key players eligible to return are junior quarterback Houston Lillard and freshman wide receiver Miles Edwards.
Lillard missed several games with broken ribs, but when in the lineup, he gave the Redhawks a consistent passing threat that they lacked without him.
Lillard completed 57.8 percent of his passes for 1,350 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. He finished third in the OVC in passing efficiency and fifth in passing yards per game.
"And he probably played at about 75, 80 percent. He hung in there, he's a tough kid," Samuel said. "You can see his talent level, the way he took command."
Edwards led the Redhawks with 34 receptions (14.1-yard average) and seven touchdowns. The bulk of that came over the last half of the season.
Southeast's running game took a hit when junior tailback Timmy Holloman was found in violation of NCAA eligibility rules after the fifth game.
Holloman, who missed the rest of the year, was among the nation's leading rushers with 655 yards through five games.
Without getting into specifics, Samuel said he expects Holloman to be able to play next season.
"We're counting on it," he said.
Defensively, Casper will leave a major void, but most of Southeast's other top statistical defenders should return.
That includes sophomore linebacker Jared Goodson, who ranked second on the team and fourth in the OVC with 98 tackles; and sophomore cornerback Eddie Calvin, who led the OVC with 18 passes defended (16 broken up, two interceptions).
One of the Redhawks' other major weapons this year was sophomore Doug Spada. He is 10th nationally in punting (42.5-yard average) and 20th nationally in field goals per game, although a late-season slump caused him to finish 14-of-22 on field goals.
After signing nearly 30 players following the 2006 season -- Samuel had to replace 26 seniors from his first Southeast team -- there will be considerably less newcomers on next year's squad since there were so few seniors.
Southeast will probably only be able to sign about 10 players, at the most.
"We don't have a lot of scholarships. We have to be very selective," Samuel said.
As for the keys to an improved season next year, Samuel said: "No. 1 is the offseason. We need to do a good job with the winter conditioning, in the spring and have a good summer program."
Samuel expects the Redhawks to get a boost in those areas through the university's recent hiring of strength and conditioning coach Clete McLeod, who has experience at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois.
"He's going to do a great job for us," said Samuel, whose program spent most of the season without a strength coach after Paul Helsel left the university.
As for the summer program -- which Samuel believes is crucial, and would take a financial commitment from the university to keep players in Cape Girardeau -- Samuel said, "We're still working on that."
Samuel believes the loss of Holloman and a host of key injuries stunted the Redhawks' growth this season.
"This was a year ... we had an awful lot of trials, we had some injuries," he said.
But Samuel remains positive.
"There were a lot of bright spots," he said. "The Jacksonville game was a great way to finish with a young team. You can see progress."