Week 1 is often the toughest game to prepare for, even with an extra week or 2 to do so. There is no film of the current team to break down and analyze, and there's always more of a focus on what you're doing instead of what to expect from the opponent.
That is magnified a bit for the Rock Falls Rockets, who open the season tonight in Harvard. The Hornets have a new coach, a new spread offense, and a Big Northern East title to defend.
There are two main things that stay the same for Harvard: 1,000-yard rusher Christian Kramer, and 1,000-yard passer Peyton Schneider. Both were instrumental in the Hornets' 11-1 season, and will be even bigger factors with the loss of 14 seniors from last year's squad.
But even with all that going on north and east of Rock Falls, the Rockets refuse to be distracted from their main focus: playing the game their way, and making the other team worry about them.
"What we've done on offense is just go out and do what we're going to do, and make the other team adjust to it," second-year Rock Falls coach Scott Berge said. "This year, we're going to do the same thing on defense; we're going to stick with what we planned and go with it, really make the other team change around us."
Defense has been the focal point all offseason, and the mantra has stayed the same leading up to the season opener. Tackling has been the key ingredient at practice this week, and the Rockets are eager to prove themselves on that side of the ball.
"We can just tell from practice that our offense looks sharp," said senior receiver/cornerback Connor Cain, the Rockets' returning leader in receiving yards, tackles and interceptions. "We've worked a lot on defense, just communicating and coming together as a unit, and we're going to go out and play the way we want to."
Harvard used a strong rushing attack to control games last season, and Rock Falls knows that it starts with slowing down Kramer. But even with the Hornets moving to more of a one-back, pistol set under new coach Sean Saylor, the Rockets feel they'll be ready for it.
"We hope they do run some spread, because we see that in practice every day," Cain said. "We're ready to fly around the field and put all those drills and tackling workouts to good use."
Another key for Rock Falls' success this season is the mental game. Berge stressed to his players at the end of Thursday's practice that how the Rockets play from the whistle to the snap will be of major importance.
"I know you guys will go hard from the snap until you hear the whistle," he told them. "It's how we do things between the plays – and between our ears – that will go a long way to winning the game."
Berge said the overall feeling at practice hasn't been one of nervousness, but rather excitement to get under the lights and get into the game atmosphere.
The players, for their part, exude confidence in what they're doing, and have taken ownership of making sure they're ready to go and playing their best come Friday night.
"We all have trust in each other and the ethics of the system we're running," senior quarterback Jacob Mammosser said. "We know it comes down to us doing our jobs, and we're tired of hitting each other. We're ready to get out there, and see what we've got against another team."
The initial goal is simple: snap the streak of 10 straight losses in season openers – including the last three to Harvard. The Rockets haven't won in Week 1 since beating Dixon in 2003, when Rock Falls was still part of the NCIC Southwest.
But a road win Friday would be the first step in the Rockets' achieving their other goals for 2014.
"If we can get it done the first week, get that first win under our belts," Cain said, "that momentum would go a long way toward Week 2. And every win we can get, that's going to help us build even more momentum as the season goes on."
Rock Falls at Harvard
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Harvard High School
Radio: 1240 AM