Peoria senior Micho Cordero visibly grimaced when asked about the ending to his team’s last football season.
The 2018 Panthers went 9-1 throughout the regular season — losing only to state semifinalist Desert Edge in a close contest — before being upset by lower-seeded Seton Catholic in the first round of the 4A playoffs.
Now, the returning players have a chance to avenge the loss with a successful regular season, but Cordero also said racking up wins would quiet a state football scene he believes does not give the Panthers the respect they deserve.
“We went 9-1, and after that people were saying we had a weak schedule and got exposed in playoffs, but overall we had a good season even though it stopped before we wanted it to,” Cordero said.
“Now that’s motivating us, and we’ve got to come out and prove it again, like we always do.”
Coach Will Babb, began initial practices before the start of the school year at 5:30 a.m. He had the players make an early start in their attempt to win a division title, starting with a revamping on both sides of the ball.
To move the ball well, Peoria will have to make up for the production of a tandem of graduated running backs — Jawaun Price and Malachi Potee — who both accumulated over 1,300 yards on the ground last season. Traditionally a running team, Babb said it will be a team effort to find success running the ball.
“You can’t just necessarily replace those kinds of kids who were seniors and flat-out just got it done. But, we’ve got some young guys we know can play. It’s going to come down to the offensive line, because I think our running backs are good enough, but the production of the line is going to be what decides their success,” Babb said.
Senior quarterback Kyle Samford will also likely be asked to throw more, both because of his experience and the new players stepping into the rushing roles. He believes wide-spread talent will allow the team to not be one-dimensional, and thus, less predictable.
“This year we have to find our balance. We’ve got a lot of good guys on offense, a lot on defense, so it’s not just going to be doing one thing,” Samford said.
While primarily focused on getting repetitions in practice to perfect plays in the upcoming season, it seemed Babb still sensed his players had a chip on their shoulders from perceived negative preseason predictions and the thoughts of other teams and fans.
A goal of his until the start of the season is to keep their intentions toward internal goals. “Everything is driven by what people say, social media and things like that. I have to get them to realize it’s about us, the kind of work we want to put in, not what the projections are or anything like that,” Babb said.
The chance to prove some doubters wrong, though, beginning August 30 when Peoria hosts Youngker, would be just a little bit sweeter.
“Everyone thinks we’re going to have an average year, that you’re not going to see Peoria at the same spot we were at again,” Cordero said. “But I think we have a shot to shock some people.”