All the teams that lost a championship game can always look at the Vukovi. After losing not one, but two finals in 2008, they improved dramatically last year, and blew away the competition. They compiled a 16-1 record in two competitions, earning the right to be called the best team of 2009 in both the CEFL and the Serbian league.
It started from the top for them, with the addition of a new head coach. John D. Harper, the man who led the Vukovi to their maybe the best year ever, returns to the Vukovi for a second season.
“Every year is different for sure and you try to get better with season programs and this type of thing. I think what’s different this year is the problems. Different this year was the weather -- it was terrible and it really gave us problems. It was sun in the day and it snowed in the evening. We missed practices and it will take longer this year. We’re behind. Maybe it’s the same for everybody”, says Harper.
Those that pay attention remember similar things being said last year. But in fact, they were true. Unlike the 2008 that started amazing and ended grimly, 2009 was almost the exact opposite. Though they were good early on, they played their best in the fall, almost routinely sending the Blue Devils home in the final.
“We did [last year] a lot of dumb things. But we did a lot of changes, constantly developing them to what they’re supposed to be. Dumb things would be as small as knowing the rules, executing those rules. And it takes 2-3 years -- it’s a process … I worked on an off season program year round with the guys … With a team you need to have goals. Offseason program helps the most. I think, every year’s going to be different and now that they’ve been exposed to the best football in Europe I expect them to get better.”
“We have the same group of guys and what’ll be interesting to see if they’ll be interested to develop themselves. I think the Dragons were surprised that we were so technical. I worked so hard with them to get them to change technically. “
The Dragons mentioned are of course the Danube Dragons, winners of their preseason friendly. Though the Vukovi lost 30-27, and it was just a friendly, they must be feeling good that they hung on with a premier team in Europe. Not only did they keep their players, but they added one more import, Tony Stubbs, giving them another pro weapon to go with Jordan Green at quarterback, and Brandon McDowell at running back.
All this, makes them the least likely team to miss the playoffs.
“They always got good athletes, Slovenia; the Wolves also have a good program. By playing home and away, people will show their weaknesses. Play a team twice and you’ll see they don’t have depth or are weak at defensive line, weak there or there. Last year in Hohenems we didn’t have all the players because of visa problems, and it showed that we needed to improve our backups.”
“It was great [the Dragons game] – if you play the weak teams you never see the mistakes. I think we need to keep playing at that level and they’ll learn what to do … I think they saw it that, Austria is so good in football, they didn’t think that a team from Eastern Europe could possibly give them competition and they were surprised. That was great for football. “
“That game is a finished question that the Vukovi are a team you have to count on.”
Of course, not all turned out to be so great in that game, with the quarterback, Green, hurting his foot. But Harper says he expects him to be back fast, and in the meantime, they already played McDowell at the position this year at the opening of the Serbian league as they did last year in the same situation.
One thing is certain – no matter what injuries they might have, the Vukovi are playing for a third CEFL title.