Everywhere Mark Mariakis turns he gets the same question: How can Ridgeland be as good as it was last year?
The Panthers' coach is quite honest when he says he doesn't know if it's possible. He also truly believes that will not be how this year's team is measured.
A season after reaching Georgia's Class AAAA championship game, the Panthers face a bevy of new challenges, the most obvious being replacing the most talented senior class in program history.
"Where are we going to make up 5,500 yards rushing?" Mariakis asks, knowing there is no easy answer. "Every single passing yard and attempt graduated."
Gone are two-way star Vonn Bell, 2,500-yard rusher Darrell Bridges and defensive stalwarts Gannon Hampton and Daniel Johnson. Only three starting offensive and defensive linemen return, and one defensive back, and even reliable kicker Evan Courtney must be replaced.
What Mariakis does have are 120 players in a program that had a fourth that many when he took over 10 years ago. Rebuilding or not, Ridgeland was nearly a unanimous pick by league coaches to repeat as champion. That respect, more than anything, makes the veteran coach smile when he looks at what's ahead.
"That means everything, that people see this program that way," he said. "And the kids know that people don't care what you did last year: They expect you to win, which comes with the territory. Teams are going to give you their best shot because you've been on the top of the mountain for a while."
The knowns on this year's team start with senior fullback Noah Cooper, who had 800 yards last year in a reserve role. Cooper knows the Panthers will go through growing pains, but he's not about to accept excuses.
"We've got to keep working hard and don't let anybody see us being down when things get tough," said Cooper, who spent the summer trying to bond with his blockers. "I'm just going to keep working hard and work with the O-line. You can't do much without my line, so we're going to need everybody. I'm working out hard to try and keep this dynasty going. We've got to grow up fast on offense."
While the offense finds its legs, the Panthers hope to be able to rely on a defense that, despite key losses, may be more athletic than a year ago. In addition to recent Indiana recruit Jermane Conyers up front, the defense has a vicious group of linebackers in Trey Stubbs, Zach Weathers, Jerome Smith and George Johnson and a field general in safety Dillon Peterman.
Sure, 2013 will be different and challenging for a program that has won four of the last five region titles, a fact that is embraced by its head coach.
"It's been a different summer for us, but the kids see it as an opportunity to make a difference," Mariakis said. "We may not be what we were last season, but we don't have to be. It's going to be exciting to see how the new guys respond, but if we give it everything every day, no one will complain."