Head coach Adam Hastings and his Ardrey Kell football team took big strides in 2010.
After struggling for the last two years of coach Marty Woolbright's tenure - 2008 and 2009, when the team went 8-14, including 3-11 in Southwestern 4A conference play - Hastings breathed new life into the Knights program.
The result was an 8-5 record last season, including a 5-2 mark in SW4A play - good for second place behind two-time 4A-state-champion Butler.
The Knights also beat rival South Mecklenburg in the first round of the playoffs - only their second playoff win in school history - before falling to unbeaten Mallard Creek.
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"We laid a great foundation for this program last year," Hastings said. "But the biggest thing now is building on that start."
A lot of the Knights' success will hinge on their quarterback. Senior Jonah Duggan has earned the position through hard work the entire offseason.
Duggan transferred to Ardrey Kell last year from St. Pius X High School in Lincoln, Neb., and played everything from running back to receiver to safety last year, waiting his turn behind former Knights quarterbacks Drew Davies and Andrew Alexander.
"Jonah has developed into a leader for this team on and off the field in the offseason," Hastings said. "I think he has earned the respect of his teammates and coaches, and we are expecting big things from him this season."
Duggan's father, Chris, says his son has worked tirelessly since the minute last season ended.
"There was no offseason for Jonah, because he wanted to take advantage of every opportunity to get ready for this season," Chris Duggan said. "He has spent six to seven days a week working on his game."
Duggan's success also will be determined by how well Ardrey Kell replaces all-state running back Justus Pickett, who rushed for more than 2,300 yards and 30 touchdowns. That unenviable task will be done by committee, with Duggan and senior tailbacks Evan Mann and Sean Billings sharing the responsibility with an experienced, senior-laden offensive line.
The line holds a special place in Hastings' heart because he played the same position at the Citadel. This year's offensive line could be Ardrey Kell's best to date, as four senior starters return: Matt Carrick, Taylor Morgan, Grey Skelton and Riley Shea.
The Knights plan is to throw the ball a little bit more consistently this year. Duggan will look for seniors Chris Cummings, Kendall Brown, Kyle Duke and Reggie Woods.
While the Ardrey Kell offense is important, the defense may be its strength this year.
All-SW4A defensive end Romeo Okwara, who recently committed to Notre Dame, is likely the team's best player and one of its top athletes. The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder will have to be accounted for on every play or he will wreck the opposing offense by himself.
Okwara will have a lot of help with all-SW4A nose guard Ian Dibble and Tyler Hawk in the mix. The senior linebacker trio of Mark Baumgarten, Josh Bugica and Jabaree Pearson should also benefit from the strong front.
"I think our defense should be a big key in keeping us in some of the big games that we were in but then faded in down the stretch," said Hastings, referring to losses to teams like Butler. "I think this group will make a lot of big plays."
The defensive backfield also should be solid, with John Moore, John Regan and Woods competing at cornerback while Brown is entrenched at free safety and Tyler Morgan at strong safety.
"When we started last season, I don't think these guys knew just how good they could be," Hastings said. "But now they've seen success and they have begun to believe (in themselves). But it's not going to be easy in this league. Every week is a new judgment. It's hard to take that next step."
The next step will be Aug. 19, when the Knights host Marvin Ridge in the season-opener.