In his first head coaching gig, Bishop Ryan's Zach Rudolph inherited a group that aims to defend its two consecutive Class AA West Region titles.
The Lions lost a handful of all-state players, but Rudolph is optimistic and excited by the potential in his team.
"All we're trying to do right now is just focus on coming out each day, improving and trying to learn the system better each day," Rudolph said. "If we can do those things, hopefully that'll return some victories for us."
Bishop Ryan senior Tanner Sanders was an all-state first-team selection as a defensive back in 2013. Now Ryan’s projected starter at quarterback, Sanders hopes to live up to the standard set by his predecessor Austin Eggl, who was a two-time all-state QB.
The Lions picked up 10 victories in as many games to start their 2013 campaign before a heartbreaking 24-17 home loss to Wahpeton in the state semifinals.
If they reach the same stage this season, they'll do it without several key starters, including all-state talent in Austin Eggl, Mason Kramer, Brody Bosch, Jake Magnuson and Nick Berentson.
Those players will be missed, but their departures don't leave the cupboard bare.
Though Kramer's loss will be felt in the trenches, the Lions return a solid core of senior linemen.
All-state second-team selection Dakota Johnson (6-foot, 230 pounds) belongs to that category. A two-way player, he recorded 33.5 tackles (8.5 for loss) on defense last season.
Jonah Kramer (6-0, 215) and Tanner Scheig (6-2, 245) are two others who will provide size and experience for the Lions on both sides of the ball.
"We've gotta be successful running the ball," Rudolph said. "That's what's gonna make it difficult on our opponents to stop us. We're really looking for our O-line to raise the bar and help this team achieve good things."
"If our offensive line can do well this year," Johnson added, "we should have no problem competing for a region title, if not a state title again."
It's been 15 years since Ryan's last state title, yet expectations for this year's Lions remain sky high after the success of last season.
Ryan is young at the skill positions.
Former backup quarterback Tanner Sanders has the inside track at the starting job after taking a handful snaps in 2013, but sophomore Eli Stewart is competing for the same position.
"Austin (Eggl) was a tremendous athlete for us. He did a great job," Sanders said. "But I feel good, confident so far. We've got some good wide receivers on this team. So far so good."
Jared Will (6-4, 205) returns as Ryan's veteran receiver. He caught all 17 of his targets last year for 230 yards and a score.
The receiving corps is perhaps the least-experienced dimension for Ryan following the losses of Bosch, Berentson and Magnuson.
A former wide receiver, himself, Rudolph is excited to work young players into his offensive system, a process with which he seems pleased in the early going.
"We've made some big jumps," said Rudolph, who played at Minot State. "We're still a long way away, and the kids know that. But I think they're starting to see the writing on the wall, so to speak, starting to see how this thing is gonna develop, and I think they're starting to believe more."
Said Will: "I like the steps that we're taking so far. We're getting better every day, just getting more comfortable, and I think by the time we start playing some games we'll be even more confident in how well we can do this season."
The Lions kick off their campaign on Thursday at Velva in the second annual Copper Bowl. Ryan won last year's weather-shortened meeting
20-0 at Herb Parker Stadium.