Heading into last season, the Amboy Clippers were coming off a trip to the Class 2A state quarterfinals, continuing their school-best run of 11 playoff berths in 13 seasons.
But graduation and a multitude of injuries took their toll on the 2013 team, and the Clippers finished with their worst record since 1998 at 2-7.
But both of those wins came against Three Rivers North foes, and despite the thinned ranks, Amboy managed to play competitively in two of its final four losses. That fact isn't lost on the guys coming back.
"We wanted to go out strong," senior fullback/linebacker Chris Jones said. "Us juniors wanted to build some momentum coming into this year, and the seniors wanted to end their final season on a good note."
While the wins didn't come down the stretch, the attitude never wavered. The players who were injured did their best to help out the team in any way possible, while the players on the field never used the injuries or inexperience as an excuse.
The biggest lesson the Clippers learned from last year's rough waters: teamwork is just as vital as talent and effort.
"You have to stick together," said senior tight end/defensive end Skyelar Zimmerly, who missed most of last season after knee surgery. "You have to become a group of guys who don't want to let each other down, and who make things work no matter what happens throughout the season."
As he has seen more than once in his 4 decades roaming the Amboy sideline – the last 20 seasons as head coach – Gary Jones wasn't surprised by the reaction his players had to the down year: instead of pouting, there's been a renewed vigor throughout offseason workouts and preseason practices.
"Usually that's how it works," coach Jones said. "There's definitely a revenge factor. We'd been to the playoffs a bunch of times in recent years, and you don;'t want to be the team to end that streak.
"But it happened, and now these guys are ready to start another streak again. They've put in a lot of work and shown good effort, and they're ready to get back out there and prove we can play better than we showed last year."
The experience gained by last year's juniors, who were thrust into some heavy lifting – many at positions they'd never played before – will be invaluable. Despite some being in different spots on the field this fall, coach Jones knows that just being on the field and "getting a taste" of varsity football will provide big dividends.
But with defense being the rock on which the Clippers are building, attitude is also going to play a major role … and Amboy's main attitude is eagerness and a thirst to make last year a distant memory.
"We've been looking forward to getting back on the field since we stepped off it the last time last year," Zimmerly said. "We're definitely excited to put last year behind us."
"It left a pretty bad taste in our mouths," Chris Jones added, "and you can't shake off something like that. You have to use it as motivation, and I think we've definitely done that."
Did you know?
• Amboy's recent string of 11 playoff appearances in 13 seasons – the best such streak in school history – was marred by a 2-7 campaign in 2013 ... the Clippers' worst record since 1998, and only the fifth 2-7 season since the playoff era began in 1974. Amboy hasn't finished with fewer than 2 wins since 1963.