The questions swirling around the Owen Warhorses this summer have been numerous. What would the team that finished 1-9 last year look like this year? How would the team overcome the loss of a star running back, key offensive and defensive lineman and starting quarterback?
It isn't that the guys who make up the 2017 Warhorse roster didn't hear the questions - they just never had time to really think about them. They were too busy working to put a team on the field that would make their hometown proud.
"It's really about us wanting to come out and show everybody we're still Warhorse football," said senior middle linebacker and team captain Kaleb Woods. "We have a lot of pride in the tradition of this program. Maybe we've had to deal with some tough times, but we're still a family."
Woods led the Warhorses with 14 tackles in Owen's 14-12 loss on the road to Enka in the season opener Aug. 18. He was one of the key players on a defense that found itself swarming to the ball against the Jets.
He's the kind of tough, physical player who personifies what the Warhorses are all about, according to head coach Nathan Padgett, entering his third season.
"This is a committed group of guys," he said of this year's roster. "They go out there every workout and practice and put in the work. They're some of the best guys I've ever been around."
Padgett acknowledged the loss of a trio of significant players from last year's roster. Sidney and Saevion Gibbs transferred to Christ School, and Kendrick Weaver is attending Erwin.
"People make choices and those guys, those guys made the choices they thought were best for them," he said. "And we wish them the best."
But the departure of those players brought the remaining players closer together, Padgett added.
Players like Woods, who Padgett said is "like having another coach on the field," add a layer of leadership and toughness to a defense that the head coach believes will be much improved this season. Woods agrees.
"We're a fast-firing, hard hitting defense," Woods said. "We want to put a team out there every week that the Valley can be proud of."
Padgett and his staff evaluated the defense at the end of last season, the Warhorses' second consecutive 1-9 campaign.
"We made a few changes from a coaching standpoint," he said. "We made changes to fit our personnel, and the kids really worked on that in the spring. We simplified some things because if they're thinking too much then they're not playing fast."
That faster style of play allows the defense to feature its strength, which is speed, according to Padgett.
"I feel really good about this defense," he said. "We have a lot of guys out there who can make plays."
Woods is joined in the middle of the defense by fellow senior Antonio McDowell. The duo accounted for 21 of the Warhorses' 69 tackles against Enka.
"We believe in those guys," Padgett said. "They both had over 60 tackles apiece last year. They're tough and physical."
McDowell has been on the varsity roster since his sophomore season, when a shoulder injury sidelined him for the year.
This season he's one of the veteran players helping younger players know what the expect.
"I make sure the guys on defense know their assignments," he said of his role on this year's team. "We have a real strong bond on the defense, and we all have each others' backs. We just work together make sure we're doing our jobs."
Woods and McDowell help "set the tone" on the defensive side of the ball, Woods said.
"If Antonio and I are doing our jobs then the rest of the defense feeds off of that," he added.
McDowell also has a crucial role on the offensive side of the ball. He rushed for 38 yards against Enka in the opener and led the Warhorses with 23 yards receiving.
"I'm trying to get a first down every time I touch the ball," he said.
Offensively the Warhorses are relying on the arm of junior quarterback Audun Meyers, who threw for more than 1,000 yards for the junior varsity team last year. McDowell, who plays fullback, will be one of the tools available to Meyers.
When he doesn't have the ball McDowell is clearing the way for his backfield mate Kristian Michels, who Padgett said is a nice complement to the fullback.
Michels rushed for 82 yards in his debut at running back against the Jets.
"We really want to re-establish the Owen tradition here," Michels said of what he expects of the team this season. "There have been so many great players to come through here that we've all really looked up to. We want to keep that going."
The Warhorses play their first home game Friday, Sept. 1 against Reynolds, which was dominant in a 50-9 win Aug. 18 over Southern Durham. Owen will have its hands full with the Rockets, but adversity is nothing new to this group, Padgett said.
"These guys are committed to this program and this community," he said. "Every week they're going to go out there and play like it."
For Woods and his teammates every week is a chance to go out on the field and do what they love most - play football.
"Do we want to go out there and win every week? Yes," Woods said. "Do we want to go out there as brothers and give our all for each other and the Valley? Yes. We're playing smash-mouth Owen football, and I'm having the time of my life."