And the Watauga High football team, which produced eight wins last season (the most in a single season since 2007) is anxiously waiting to face its first test in Friday's season opener in Taylorsville, N.C. against Alexander Central.
The Pioneers jumped on the Cougars and built a commanding 20-0, first-quarter lead enroute to a 34-12 win at Jack Groce Stadium last season---a venue where Alexander Central has struggled mightily since that building opened in 2010 (the Cougars are 0-3 lifetime at "The Groce"). They're 3-8 in Boone dating back to 1997.
But the Pioneers, who return a veteran team with 17 seniors and 12 returning starters, are battling some injuries heading into Friday's season opener. Michael Ebaugh (ankle), Evan Suggs (ankle), Hunter Isaacs (seperated shoulder; he had an MRI Wednesday), linebacker Landry Morgan (knee) and linebacker Dylan Arbogast are among the various injuries the Pioneers are nursing at the moment.
"We're pretty banged up right now, and we may be that way for at least for the first few weeks of the season," said WHS coach Ryan Habich, now in his second season with the Pioneers. "We're really going to be shorthanded at wide receiver and linebacker. We're going to be counting on a lot of first-year guys in that first game."
Elijah Temple will see a lot of time at wide receiver and in the secondary; transfer Rylee Critcher will play tight end and linebacker; Willis Ellis, who will split time at the B-back position with Zach Williams and Suggs, will also see time at linebacker Friday night.
But the Cougars, members of the Northern Piedmont 3A-4A Conference, are battling the injury bug themselves. Starting tight end Josh Bolick is out with a bad ankle, backup quarterback John Blankenship is nursing an ankle injury, and Alexander Central's best offensive lineman, Ryan Whitley, is questionable with a knee injury.
"And he's a game-time decision right now," Alexander coach Nick Bazzle. "It's going to be an interesting game for sure. We both have a some key people hurt. But we have to do a better job at the line of scrimmage this season. They gave us a lot of problems last year. We couldn't stop their nose guard. He simply dominated us."
This is probably the youngest team Bazzle has had in his three years with the Cougars. There's only ten seniors on the team, and only three have playing experience. Five of those seniors are first-year players. And the Cougars only return four starters---two on offense and two on defense.
The biggest concerns are at wide receiver and the secondary. One plus defensively, Matt Carrigan returns at safety. He was injuried and only played three games last season. He made 11 stops during his short stay in the secondary.
"Having him back really gives them a boost back there," Habich said. "He's a physical player in the secondary for them, and he can make plays. But we're in a similiar boat. Aaron Dobbins (who suffered a concussion in last year's game) is a good quarterback, but he's got to have someone to throw to.
"Hunter Isaacs is hurt and Cam Baker graduated. So we have to get a little more creative. We're a little thin at wide out. That's why we're going to throw to our wings (T.J. Poulos and Nathan Ford) a little more."
But Alexander Central's best defense Friday night might be its offense. The Cougars, who like WHS, utilize the triple option, averaged 305-yards on the ground last season. And even though they lost Tanner Starnes (who played in the East-West Senior All-Star game in Greensboro in July) to graduation (he ran for 951 yards), they do return a pair of juniors that have big-play ability in quarterback Landon Hammer (432 yards passing, 779 yards rushing and a combined 12 touchdowns last season) and B-back Davante Clark, who ran for a team-best 1,298 yards and 12 touchdowns.
"And the last thing we want is for them to play ball control and keep our defense on the field for long periods of time," Habich said. "The triple option is a ball control offense, and with our injuries and the heat, we're going to have a lot of guys going both ways. If we don't make stops, they'll wear us down. It could be a long night.
"They remind me a of a team I had at Fuquay-Varina in 2009, and we came within one game of reaching the state championship. If you can run the football, and if you can play option football, it can be a difficult thing to stop."
It will be warm and humid in Taylorsville Friday night. The forecast is calling for a high of 91 degrees and a low of 70 with a 30% chance of showers and thunderstorms.
And, like the Cougars, the Pioneers have had their share of problems winning in Taylorsville. WHS is 3-6 at Cougars Stadium since 1996, and they haven't won there since 2008 (the Pioneers bested Alexander Central 21-7 that season). This is also the 38th meeting between the schools, and the Cougars lead the all-time series 21-16. But the Pioneers have won three of the last four.
"Coach Habich has done a whale of a job with that team," Bazzle said. "He's got them playing solid, fundamental football. They do a good job taking advantage of mistakes, and they've got a great quarterback in Dobbins. He got hurt against us last year, and we got back in the game after our slow start, but they made the big plays last year and we didn't. That and their play on the line of scrimmage was the difference."
Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m., on AM 1450, WATA and GoBlueridge.net.
NOTES: The Cougars are dressing freshman quarterback Gunner Anderson (his older brother Bradley is a starting linebacker) for Friday's game. Bazzle feels Anderson could challenge John Blankenship for the backup quarterback spot next season....The Cougars have had their problems against the pass. Opponents completed 59% of their passes last season....The Cougars were also minus four in turnover ratio.