Coming into the 2013 season, the AFC Raiders were still flying high after the program's best record since a trip to the Class 1A quarterfinals in 2005.
A 5-4 campaign in 2012 saw the Raiders eligible for the playoffs, but miss out on a postseason berth by mere playoff points. AFC was determined to build on that, and make sure it didn't happen again.
But things didn't go according to plan last fall, as the Raiders found some tough sledding in the NUIC Upstate and never recovered from a five-game losing streak to open the season.
"It was definitely a shock," senior lineman/linebacker Kevin Kurz said, "and it's a lot of motivation for this year. We've cut some of the slack from last season, basically saying, 'This is what we're doing, and this is how we're doing it, and you have to join us or fall behind.'"
The 1-8 campaign wasn't palatable for anyone involved in the AFC program. The coaches put together a more rigorous summer workout program, and the players, for the most part, bought in.
But harder work and better conditioning wasn't all the Raiders took away from 2013. In addition to being better prepared physically, head coach Brad Winterland realized that the mental approach needed to change, as well.
"We definitely learned from it, and we realize that we have to take care of ourselves instead of worrying about the rest of the league," Winterland said. "We're focused on getting better and improving every day, just concentrating on this group of guys on a day-to-day basis."
The shift from the big picture to the small stuff has helped streamline the Raiders' process. It's also taken some of the weight off the players' shoulders.
Instead of worrying about the playoffs at the end of the season, they realize that if they do the little things better each and every day, the wins will take care of themselves.
"If we work hard and get better every day, we'll eventually reach our goals," junior quarterback Jacob Hilliker said. "The way to reach our goals is to do the little things right. It's less stressful to not worry about what's coming down the road, and it's easier to focus and see the team getting better when you look at the day-by-day stuff."
"Focus" is a word overheard time and again during AFC practices. And with a more experienced crew than last year – the Raiders return 10 starters this fall, twice as many as last year – things have been running more smoothly heading into Winterland's fourth season at the helm.
"The work ethic and energy and effort have been there the whole way," Winterland said. "I'm thrilled with how the guys have accepted things and handled themselves this offseason and preseason."
There is also a sense of urgency around the program, especially for the five seniors on the roster. Their desire to not see a repeat of last season, coupled with their hunger to take advantage of their final chance to make a playoff run, has been infectious.
"We thought we were going to have a great junior year, and it didn't turn out that way," Kurz said. "Now, we're ready to hit some people and win some games."
Did you know?
• The Raiders' last playoff appearance was in 2005, when they finished 11-1 and ended a string of three straight postseason berths with a loss to eventual state champion Aquin in the Class 1A quarterfinals. AFC has just one winning season since, finishing 5-4 in 2012 – when it missed out on the playoffs because it didn't have enough playoff points.