The pain of seeing its season cut short in the regional championship on a Hail Mary has never fully subsided for Caldwell County, which is using that as motivation in the 2016 season.
All three of the Tigers' losses last year were heartbreakers, as they lost them by a combined eight points -- including 32-27 to Elizabethtown at home on a last-second touchdown pass to end their season.
Instead of forgetting about it, the Tigers are choosing to remember the pain they felt and harness it for the 2016 season.
"You hope they learn from that," Caldwell coach David Barnes said. "The very first day of practice I pointed to the corner down there of the E'town game where they scored and we got beat. It's something I think about every day. Just had to knock the ball away and we win the game, so hopefully they learn from that."
Despite the shortcomings in those close games, Caldwell still came away with 10 wins -- a feat considering the Tigers were in their first year without former Mr. Football Elijah Sindelar.
Shane Burns more than filled in, throwing for 34 touchdown passes with 245 passing yards per game. He'll have his work cut out for him in 2016, as nearly every one of his weapons has graduated.
Zach Gaither, who had 41 receptions and five touchdowns last season, is the top returner at receiver and will be Burns' go-to player.
The success by Caldwell last year came from more than its passing game, as Javonte Riley ran for 1,087 yards with 13 touchdowns and will be counted on even more this season.
"I think he has gotten quicker. He's put on some more weight and is stronger," Barnes said of Riley.
Barnes also expects Jameer Riley and Trel Riley to have breakout years in their sophomore seasons at receiver and on the defensive side of the ball, which could be a strength of the team led by a talented group of linebackers.
Cole Baker, Hunter VanHooser, Dylan Gray and Will Beshear make up one of the most talented linebacking corps in the area, and with a year of experience under their belts, will be looked at as viable weapons and game-changers.
"The good thing about them is they are juniors. They have 13 starts under their belts and had many positives last year," Barnes said. "We just watched film from the Butler County game and it's night and day how much we have changed since then."
Cole Baker, Garrick Lamb and Russel Brandon are all expected to be key players on the defensive side for the Tigers, who have a tough schedule early with hopes it prepares them for a difficult district and postseason.
The early schedule could give a good read of how talented Caldwell is, but Barnes said it will be a work in progress.
"Some of us have read about how good we can be. We haven't played a game yet. Right now we aren't very good, and they have to understand that in order to be good we have to work hard and put in the time," Barnes said.
One team that could pose a threat in the district is Paducah Tilghman, entering its first season under the leadership of head coach Kurt Barber.
He's brought about a new coaching style, a passing attack offense and the hunger to bring back a state title to Paducah.
"Anything less than a state championship would be a disappointment," Barber said of his team, which last won state in 2009. "That's PT football. We expect it here."
To reach that pinnacle, Tilghman must replace top players at nearly every position group. It starts at quarterback, which will be taken over by Dalton Ferrell after backing up Jesse Dunigan last year.
His backup role last year required him to start for a few games, with Ferrell stepping up to throw for 302 yards and three touchdowns.
"Dalton is looking good and he has some weapons around him. I think Hunter Watkins, Antonio Askew and Howard Smith can all be big for us," Barber said.
Illinois transfer Alec Gold will be the new running back, and Jordan Overstreet (359 yards last year) will be behind him.
Wallace McCoy and Chance Orr will help man the offensive line and will be big components of the Tilghman defense, as they accounted for nearly 150 tackles last season.
That Tilghman defense, which also brings back Bryson Brooks in the secondary, had six games last year where it allowed seven points or fewer.
For an inexperienced team with a coach who is still getting to know the players, Tilghman's early keys will be to show week by week improvement in hopes it leads to something larger.
"With that improvement comes maturity and leadership and at some point you want to find your identity," Barber said. "We aren't sure what that is yet because we are all so new."
Looking for an improved year after a 2-8 campaign is Trigg County, which brings back quarterback Tyreke Wilson and lineman D'Avian Phillips. Both are receiving Division-I interest.
Wilson will have a new offense to work with, as Trigg is switching to the Tony Franklin system to stretch the field vertically and horizontally.
"It's all new to him, but it is nice to have someone with experience there," coach Coby Lewis said. "He has become the leader of the offense."
Trigg battled injuries last year, but will look for a healthy season for a team that includes Luke Carneyhan to bolster its offense and defense, as well as Tyson Bush back at linebacker.
The skill players for Trigg are dominated by underclassmen, while their lines are veterans -- something that could be a strength for the Wildcats.
"We will be older than we were last year, but we're still young," Lewis said. "We played a lot of freshmen last year, guys who got experience, but are still just sophomores now."
Union County finished third in the district last year, with its head coach having since left for Henderson County. Dontae Smith is back for the Braves after running for 1,456 rushing yards with 20 touchdowns last year.
Fort Campbell won a pair of games last year, including one over Trigg County to make the playoffs, with Denoris Buchanan (345 rushing yards) its top returner.
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