By the end of the 2015 season, the Calloway County Lakers found themselves in unfamiliar territory - hosting a first-round football game at Jack D. Rose Stadium for the first time since 2008.
And while the taste of a 39-15 defeat to Allen County-Scottsville was bitter all around, it's a cup the team wants to drink from once again. Second-year head coach Mickey Garrison hopes the emotions of a recent playoff run eschew a renewed attitude and focus heading into this year.
"Anything less than a winning season would be a huge disappointment," Garrison said. "These guys -- our guys -- want a district championship."
The Lakers lost only six seniors to graduation, but the departures mean a change of guard and identity in Calloway football. Former quarterback Cole Stetson, starting lineman Adam Grosz, wide receiver and defensive back Jacob Friedrich, kicker Holland Tetrev, wideout Raymond Perez and lineman Joseph Brashear all vacate Calloway and take with them a good amount of production.
But in step some familiar faces. Junior Jacob Bellah resumes his duties at safety, where he picked up six interceptions last season. He's also in at quarterback, providing more of a dual-threat role rather than the traditional drop-back pocket passer.
Senior Jeremiah Malone will be looking to build off a 63-catch, 922-yard, six-touchdown season at wide receiver - as well as his six interceptions at defensive back.
"He's not somebody where you can man him," Garrison added. "Zoning him will contain him, but we can put him in motion, use him as a decoy or get him the ball in space."
In a more balanced offense than a year ago, Garrison believes he can rely on the run with junior Cody Orr and sophomore Dareios Stribling working a time-share behind an offensive line that's mostly intact from last season's 5-6 campaign.
Junior wideouts Kevin Robertson and Jordan Norsworthy could also give Bellah a couple more targets in the passing game, while senior Chandler Cain has earned the "Y" position in the offense and will be an "outstanding tight, big and strong" linebacker for the defense.
"The dedication to what (Bellah) has done from spring to now is incredible," Garrison added about his new signalcaller. "He's going to be a good field general, and will be making some similar calls at the free safety position.
"There's going to be growing pains, but the passing game is going to grow. We do know what (Bellah) is good at, and we're going to put him in some successful situations as the season rolls along."
Another senior -- linebacker and offensive lineman Colby Culver -- should not be missed. He finished in the top five of his weight class at the 2015 KHSAA State Wrestling Tournament and is more than capable of playing multiple positions for the Laker offense and defense.
Top heavy district starts
After a 10-2 season in 2015, the Hopkinsville Tigers return as the top of 4A District 1 football, thanks in most part to junior quarterback Jalen Johnson. He's 40 passing touchdowns away from the school's career record - certainly doable after posting 31 scores with 10 interceptions last season.
Running back and defensive back Stephen "Shorty" Cager finished with 365 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, as well as 22 catches and 360 yards with five touchdowns in 2015. He also had one fumble recovery and three interceptions, making him one of Hopkinsville's top threats on both sides of the ball.
Wideout CJ Henangan also returns as one of Johnson's top weapons after posting a 32/691/12 line last season, while the defense will be spearheaded from the efforts of senior linebacker Jaxon Janes and safety Don Parker.
Former Mayfield standout and Murray State alum Jay Burgett enters his second year at the helm of the Madisonville-North Hopkins Maroons, who will be smarting after finishing 2015 with a 4-7 record. With the graduation of Nate Embry (now at Murray State under head coach Mitch Stewart), they'll turn to quarterback Dalen Gipson for instant offense and leadership, who in 2015 threw four touchdowns and 11 interceptions in limited action.
Hopkins County Central ended the state's longest losing streak in the opening weekend of 2015 after defeating Webster County 22-14. A month later, the Storm won again -- this time trumping an eventually winless Logan County squad 13-12.
First-year head coach Todd Adler will be looking to deliver Cougars football its first win since late 2012, in the longest losing streak in the state at 33 games.