Confession time. The first thing out of my mouth when speaking to first-year Hilton Head Prep football coach Kevin Orford after Friday's 30-12 win against St. Andrew's was an admission that the Dolphins surprised me.
On my first trek to Prep this season, I expected to a see obvious signs of a team that underwent more than its share of offseason turmoil. Longtime coach Ron Peduzzi was dismissed from the school in April, and his replacement, Alex Marx, only lasted through two weeks of spring drills before his contract was rescinded.
Then there was the constant buzz about which Prep player might transfer to which school, not to mention the loss of star quarterback Matt Layman to graduation, leading receiver Dimitri Lowry's transfer to Bluffton High School and offensive coordinator Steve Fuller's move to Hilton Head High.
Add in the fact that both Peduzzi and Marx have filed lawsuits against the school, and the potential for distraction was off the charts.
But instead of looking like a team that spent its offseason just a half-step away from chaos, the Dolphins played with discipline, stuck to their assignments and executed almost flawlessly.
"Coach Orford has focused on the little things and getting it done," quarterback Jeremy Haidon said. "We didn't do so much of that in the past years. It's the little things that he's kept saying will get us wins. We believed him, and it's paying off so far. We're believing."
They made a believer out of me.
The offensive line was impressive, even without two injured starters in Devin White and Robert Clark. The stable of backs was missing a thoroughbred in Scott D'Amico, who probably will miss at least one more game with a bone bruise in his foot, but still rolled up more than 250 rushing yards for the second consecutive game. And the defense played with the kind of aggressiveness and discipline the Dolphins have lacked in recent years.
They earned another believer in St. Andrew's coach Brock Miller, who has made his name in SCISAA football coaching physical, smashmouth teams.
"This group here, they didn't make the mistakes," Miller said. "They knew what they were doing, and they executed. They didn't do a lot, but what they did, they did well."
Miller went as far as saying the Dolphins will be "tough to beat" in SCISAA Region 2-AA, and it's hard to disagree. They'll certainly be tested by Thomas Heyward Academy, which has never been equipped to deal with Prep's old pass-happy spread attack but loves to smash helmets with anyone. And they'll have their hands full with Hilton Head Christian Academy, which is just as big up front but a bit more green in the backfield.
But after the way they've started the season, the Dolphins have to be considered just as much of a contender as anyone else in a wide-open region.
The Dolphins attribute their early success to a commitment to strength training -- Orford said an average of 17 players showed up in the weight room each day during the summer, another thing that has been sorely missing at Prep -- and it shows in their play.
No longer is Prep soft on defense and content to try to win a shootout.
"It's gone a complete circle," Orford said. "We're focused and more energized on defense. If we can score a couple touchdowns, our defense will keep us in the game. ... The difference is these kids started believing."
And it hasn't taken long to get others to join them.