BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) -The reminders of the April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech are still plentiful around town, and around the football program. The names of 32 victims are printed in the team's media guide, and game jerseys feature a memorial patch.
As they work through their first week of practice for a season in which they feel they are playing for more than just themselves, the Hokies hope their performance - win or lose - honors the memory of those killed in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
``A couple of weeks after everything that happened, we kind of knew when it came time for the season, people were going to look to us to bring a little something back to the school, and we understand that,'' linebacker Vince Hall said Saturday.
Not only understand it, but embrace the opportunity to help in the healing.
``The football team is the window to Virginia Tech,'' said defensive end Chris Ellis, one of 16 returning starters. ``We carry that torch and we carry it proudly.''
The Hokies are expected to make the school proud this season - they were the overwhelming choice of media voters to win the Atlantic Coast Conference title.
High expectations as a season draws nearer have become standard for players on one of the nation's consistent powers, and that makes coping simpler, Ellis said.
``We plan on meeting everybody's expectations by just meeting our own,'' he said.
The Hokies open at home against East Carolina on Sept. 1, marking the start of an emotional season - one in which the team hopes to begin reminding the nation that long before the tragedy, the football team had put its small college town on the map.
``When we come through that tunnel on Sept. 1, there's going to be people looking down on us,'' tailback Kenny Lewis said. ``The people that we lost unfortunately aren't going to be in the stadium with us. We're playing for them. We're playing for everybody - the families that lost somebody, the people that lost friends.''
The Hokies also see the chance to, on behalf of the school, thank a nation that responded to the horror of the shootings with contributions of money and support.
``People outside of Virginia Tech felt like they were a part of Virginia Tech. That means a lot to us to know that they cared that much about us,'' Lewis said.
Last year, as a break from practice before the opener, the Hokies went bowling one night. This season, coach Frank Beamer said, they're holding a car wash and will be accepting donations for the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund.
Lewis, who returned to college last year after spending three seasons playing professional baseball, is glad he's in Blacksburg now.
``Everything happens for a reason. Maybe I was supposed to play baseball for a while and then come back because I was supposed to be here to help people get through it,'' he said. ``Now that I'm here, I'm going to live it to the fullest.''
Wide receiver Justin Harper, one of 13 seniors on the two-deep depth chart for offense and defense, agreed.
``I think we really have a special team here, and we really look forward to this challenge,'' he said. ``We have the best fans in the nation and we know they're going to be loud out here, not just because of the tragedy, but because we're Virginia Tech.''

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