Not having many expectations, a young Northwest Cabarrus team surprised last year to finish tied for third place in the South Piedmont Conference.
Trojan coach Rich Williams said his team's performance is a testament that hard work does pay off.
With a more experienced group, which includes 16 seniors, Northwest will look to build upon last year's success, which included a trip to the second round of the 3A playoffs, and contend for a conference title.
"The longer you play together, you usually play better," he said. "We have a great group of guys, who are seniors now, that have learned as they went and make us a better team. We have high expectations this year."
The biggest hurdle for the Trojans will be to stay healthy.
Not having large numbers, with only 35 players on its varsity team, many players will have to move around or play both ways, so the team can't afford to lose any key player.
Williams said his Trojans know that and have been selfish, willing to do what it takes to benefit the team.
"Players have been very receptive to trying positions they don't know," said Williams.
The Trojans' focus will again be on the running game. Williams said his "power-running team" should be led by seniors John Edmond, an all-conference selection last year, and Jalen Caldwell. The duo returns after splitting time at tailback last year.
"We're going to ask them to carry the load for us," said Williams.
The offensive line returns two players, 6-foot-2, 340 pound senior Troy Cole, who anchors the left side at tackle, and 6-foot, 210-pound senior Terrell McMullen, who plays guard. Williams said they have been invaluable in getting the younger guys up to speed.
"We're counting on all our returning guys quite a bit to lead our team," he said. "We need them to execute so we can compete."
The Trojans will also count on senior Colby Williford, who returns at quarterback and will need to help the Trojans do a better job of controlling the game. Williams said his quarterback's attitude makes him easy to coach.
"He's tough kid, he's a smart kid and he's a competitor," said Williams.
Williford will be throwing the ball mainly to seniors Will England and E.J. Rhinehart, the team's top two returning receivers.
The two of them will also play key roles on the defensive side of the ball, where they play in the backfield. England was an all-conference player last season.
Free safety Devante Flowe also returns to strengthen the secondary.
Linebackers Jarrin Hogue and Josh Eudy, coming off good seasons, should solidify the middle of the defense.
The biggest question in the Trojan defense is its line. Losing a couple all-conference defensive linemen, including SPC defensive Player of the Year D.J. Bostick, Northwest Cabarrus will have to figure out how to fill in that gap.
On special teams, highly-touted senior kicker Bradley Pinion also returns. Williams said having the SPC special team's Player of the Year back is a big boost for his team.
"We're counting on him to put the ball in the end zone every kickoff and punting the ball 40-yards every time to change the field position to our advantage," the coach said. "He's an extremely valuable weapon."
With key pieces to the puzzle in place, Williams said he hopes he's able to properly fill in the gaps by the time SPC play begins Sept. 16 against Concord.
If his team stays disciplined, Williams sees his team getting better. But he knows it will take dedication.
"We have to stay disciplined and play well," said Williams.