Last year was the year of "first time since" and "first time ever" for the Wagener-Salley football program.
It's time to throw all of those out now, because 2019 is a new year – but first, there's one last "first time since".
For the first time since 1995, the War Eagles enter the season as defending region champions.
Last year's team delivered on the promise it showed during the previous two seasons. The War Eagles, having grown up from being just talented freshmen and sophomores, won 10 games, went undefeated in Region 3-A and reached the Lower State semifinals.
They handled themselves with maturity and confidence during all of those firsts, and don't expect that confidence to wane now after a region title.
"You would think there would be a drop-off in intensity and the work ethic, because they've kind of accomplished what they're gonna accomplish. We spent a lot of time talking about how this year's different," Wagener-Salley head coach Willie Fox said. "Last year's over. This year is brand new. We haven't accomplished anything yet. Everything that we want to accomplish is now before us again. ... Instead of a drop-off in intensity, they've raised their intensity."
That could be scary for a team that brings back so much talent from last year.
Wagener-Salley's single-wing offense ran opposing defenses into the ground last year, and that's certainly part of the game plan again. Kevin Jackson returns at tailback and Kaleb Shaw is back at wing back, and the War Eagles can again hand the ball off to punishing runners like Jeremiah Bynem and Jhuatieq Davis to pound the rock.
Practically the entire offensive line returns, with Nigel Brown sliding over to fill in at center following the graduation of Dalton Fields. Phillip Poole, who Fox said is about 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, will now take over one of the tackle spots. Elijah Davis is a big weapon at the tight end position, and he'll also supply plenty of pressure at defensive end.
The War Eagles' defensive front is all back, and most of the secondary is back. Fox estimated that the defense will probably be a bigger group this year that will align a little differently to counter any drop-off in speed. Still, this was a unit last year that found what opposing offenses did well and took it away from them.
Wagener-Salley opens the season with non-region games against Pelion, Fox Creek and Eau Claire before moving again into that seven-game Region 3-A schedule.
This time, though, the War Eagles won't be looking to catch up to the leaders – everyone else is now chasing them.