WORCESTER — Their summer days began with a 6 a.m. run.
Then Ryan Laughlin would venture to grocery stores and Wal-Marts, working 40-hour weeks restocking shelves of Polar Bear beverages.
Steven Elder, meanwhile, spent his afternoons lifeguarding.
They reconvened in the evening, for football workouts. At night, they played video games.
“He’s a bit better than me,” Laughlin conceded. “Actually, yeah, he’s better than me. But only in video games.”
On the field, Laughlin and Elder — both junior quarterbacks at Holy Cross — are about even. And therein lies the problem for the Crusaders.
“We’re comfortable with either of them out there, but we prefer to name a starter,” coach Tom Gilmore said. “We want someone to be that guy. The guy. We just need one of them to pull away. And it’s very frustrating because neither of them has.”
Laughlin and Elder are good friends. They are competitors, too.
“I think I want it just as bad as him,” Laughlin said. “We both know that.”
But neither can seem to gain an edge.
“We know the coaches are waiting for one of us to step ahead,” Elder said. “Maybe it’s so tough because we’re so similar.”
Last season, fifth-year senior Kevin Watson entered training camp as the undisputed starter. When he sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 2, Gilmore improvised.
First, Laughlin got the nod. Then Elder started. Then Laughlin again.
“Neither really pulled away from the other,” Glimore said. “So we couldn’t name a starter.”
For the second half of the season, the sophomores split time — just about evenly — in a two-quarterback system Gilmore categorized as less than ideal.
“It causes some continuity issues,” said Gilmore, whose 27-year coaching career includes 13 years in the Ivy League. “If a quarterback is coming on and off the field, they miss certain rhythms of the game. They can’t get a feel of opponents, especially when they make changes.”
“It’s probably hard for the offense,” Laughlin said. “For example, I have a different snap count than Steven.”
“The receivers need to develop chemistry with both of us,” Elder said.
Laughlin played 11 games and started four. He was 81 of 132 for 752 yards and 6 touchdowns . Elder played seven games, starting five. He was 106 of 173 for 1,281 yards and 7 TDs.
The Crusaders finished 2-9, ending a run of seven straight winning seasons.
Gilmore called it one of the strangest seasons he’s ever coached, with a plethora of fluky injuries.
“Guys getting concussions in noncontact drills,” Gilmore said. “Guys sustaining knee injuries in noncontact drills. Actually, almost all of the injuries were in non-live situations. And they were dropping like flies.”
The Crusaders used six starting offensive line combinations in the first six games. They moved one of their best defensive linemen to right guard.
But this season, almost everyone is healthy.
“And I think the quarterbacks will benefit from the luxury of not having a makeshift line like we did last year,” Gilmore said. “Who the quarterback is — that’s the question.”
“I think our coaches and teammates know we can win with either of us in,” Elder said. “Usually when you have a quarterback competition, the guys do things differently. I think where Coach has the issue is that we pretty much have the same skill set.”
Elder, 6 feet 4 inches, 207 pounds, grew up in suburban San Antonio and speaks with a slight Southern twang. At Alamo Heights High school, he ran a dynamic spread offense.
“All passing,” he said.
“Steven’s a bit more cerebral of the two, maybe even calmer,” Gilmore said. “Ryan’s a bit more of a fiery guy.”
Laughlin, 6-2, 198, grew up in a quaint town just outside of Philadelphia — Glen Mills, part of the original land grant given to William Penn in 1681.
Laughlin attended Cardinal O’Hara, a member of the prestigious and highly competitive Philadelphia Catholic League.
Both quarterbacks say they chose Holy Cross for its blend of football and academics.
Elder is studying economics and history; Laughlin is majoring in economics and accounting.
The Crusaders are a team in transition. In 2012, the Patriot League allowed teams to offer football scholarships for athletic merit for the first time. The league previously allowed teams to only offer academic scholarships.
Gilmore said the change “drastically affected recruiting” — but not in the way one would expect.
“This recruiting class [the first with football scholarships] actually raised our academic profile,” Gilmore said, “because we are still targeting the same initial prospects.”
In the past, Gilmore couldn’t retain the interest of the top talent in that pool.
“We saw kids eliminate Holy Cross strictly because of the financial aspects and go to much lesser academic institutions,” Gilmore said. “Now that’s not a reason for them to cross Holy Cross off the list.”
Gilmore said all 16 freshmen held other scholarship offers — some to FBS schools.
The old need-based model had regulations that distributed money evenly to players. Now Gilmore can spend more money on a handful of players regardless of need. And he will allot a good portion of money to those players.
“So our roster size will probably go down,” Gilmore said. “That will affect certain things. For example, our ability to use scout teams will diminish.”
That’s an issue for next year. For now, it’s all about the quarterbacks.