If football is all about attitude and sheer "want to," the Dixon Dukes are looking good for 2014.
Everybody within the program is eager and excited for the next 9 Friday nights, so much so that fourth-year head coach Dave Smith gets a gleam in his eye when he talks about what he sees in his players.
"It's like having a big old racehorse that you have to hold back," he said. "These kids can't wait to get out there and get after it."
Coming off their best season in 5 years, last fall started with a bang in the form of a dominant road victory over Monmouth-Roseville. While the middle of the schedule got a bit muddled, the Dukes won two of their final four games – both wins coming on the road, in Week 6 at LaSalle-Peru and Week 9 at Streator.
And that's where Dixon's players hope to pick up starting next week: right where they left off 10 months ago.
"It builds the momentum to start this year," senior lineman Alex Helander said, "and we want to start this season like we finished off last year. We just need to stay even-keel and level-headed, and not put our heads down after bad plays and bad breaks."
Helander believes that will be a much easier task this season than last. With 11 seniors – all returning starters, and a half-dozen in their third year at the varsity level – there will be no shortage of experience and leadership in Dixon.
And that's something else that gets Smith smiling. After losing just four players to graduation from last year's squad, it feels like the group of team leaders he has this year has returned virtually intact.
It's a group that has been eyeing their senior season together since they started playing football as a unit for the Junior Dukes in sixth grade.
"Leadership is everything, and we have so much of it," Smith said. "And these guys just flat-out enjoy being out there with the guys lined up next to them, and that makes a big difference."
Not only is there continuity amongst the players, but also with the coaching staff and the offensive and defensive systems. Smith's tenure is the longest for a Dixon coach since the Greg Sprenger era in the 1990s, and his wide-open attack has now become second nature to every player in the program.
"It's a lot smoother now," said JD Gieson, returning for his third year as the Dukes' starting quarterback. "We're all comfortable with and confident in what we're doing, and we have the skills – and now the experience, as well – to run it a lot better. We're so far more advanced now in this system than we've ever been."
Hard work has not been foreign to these Dukes. With the system now becoming ingrained, there can be more focus on building the mental and physical strength needed to play into Week 10 and 11.
"Coach Smith always tells us that expecting different results when you do the same thing over and over is insane," senior center/linebacker Jacob Harrison said. "We know 3-6 isn't good enough, and every single guy on this team has done everything they could over the offseason to be more involved with Dixon athletics, both by playing other sports and hitting the weight room and workout sessions hard."
Even entering a new conference, the Big Northern West, doesn't seem to faze the Dukes. They look at it like a clean slate, a new foundation upon which to build.
"We want to start a legacy for Dixon football in a new conference," Helander said, "and this is our chance to start out on a good note."
Make no mistake, the buzz in the Dixon locker room is louder than it has been in awhile. There's an intensity and a fire burning just below the surface that has everybody in the program psyched up.
And with that, comes some heightened expectations.
"I don't expect more than two losses this year," Gieson said, then hesitated. "I guess I never expect to lose, so maybe I shouldn't say that. But we're ready to go, we're playing at a high tempo, and we have a lot of confidence that we can do something special."
Did You Know?
• The Dukes' 3-6 record last season was the program's best since they finished with three wins in 2008. Dixon's lone winning season since back-to-back playoff appearances in 2000 and '01 came in 2006, when it went 8-4 and lost to eventual state runner-up Woodstock Marian – and star lineman Bryan Bulaga, now with the Packers – in the Class 5A quarterfinals.