In the weeks after the Del Norte High varsity football team completed its 2012 season, finishing 2-8 overall, Warriors head coach Ray Rook asked himself a question: How can I get my players to believe in - and get excited for - what we do on the field?
That question, in part, motivated Rook to simplify his offense, with a back-to-basics approach to running the football, while striving to run more plays at a faster pace.
It's why Rook hired four new coaches and promoted his junior varsity staff up a level. That meant that defensive coordinator Fritz Baldwin - who had spent 15 years on the Del Norte sideline - and offensive coordinator Chris White were asked not to return.
It's why Rook tabbed Michael Dixon as strength and conditioning coach, with Dixon creating an offseason regimen of weightlifting and highly repetitive CrossFit exercises.
It's why Rook said yes when asked to join the "black" pool at the Gold Beach Football Training Camp in Gold Beach, Ore., June 15andndash;19. The Warriors played against teams drawing from schools of twice Del Norte's population and saw bigger and faster opponents.
It's also why Rook and his coaching staff took his entire football team, varsity and junior varsity, to Gasquet Mountain School Aug. 12andndash;15. Players spent 24 hours a day together - eating, sleeping, practicing, studying film and participating in less rigorous activities.
To be sure, the question itself is as old as interscholastic competition, and offseason changes cannot guarantee results. What has emerged is a positive attitude shared by the football team and a desire to accomplish its goals.
"We're more of a team this year than we were last year," senior wide receiver/defensive back David Sathe said. "We have a lot more leaders this year that want to be leaders. It's a lot different from last year, that's for sure."
Del Norte found itself headed in the wrong direction in a hurry last season. The Warriors started out 2-2 before losing their last six games, including four in a row decided by 11 points or fewer. The 1-6 record in Humboldt-Del Norte Big 5 League play was the team's worst of the past six years.
The Warriors' junior varsity squad, however, had a successful season in 2012, finishing 8-2 overall. Many of those players are now on the varsity roster, filling holes left by seven starters due to graduation, dismissal or attrition.
Quarterback Dylan Pease, who threw for 1,245 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2012, returns to lead the offense. Five of the top six rushers, including Pease, are back, led by third-year varsity player Jordan Carpenter. Juniors Chad Bell, Napooi Shorty, Matthew Coopman and Steven Maready will also factor into the run game; senior Jackson Evans, the Warriors' second-leading rusher in 2012, is sidelined with a knee injury and is doubtful to play in the season's first few games.
"I want that to be the mentality and identity of the offense: We're going to run at you," Rook told the Triplicate in April. "If you can stop the run, that's the key."
Del Norte will break in a new pair of starting wide receivers in 2013 after Aaron Fitch was dismissed from the team and Nathan Porter left for personal reasons. Along the offensive line, right guard Cristian Puente and right tackle David Plechaty return as starters; guard Eric Turner is expected to start at nose tackle and substitute in on offense as needed.
The defensive side of the ball remains much more fluid due to the number of two-way players. Nevertheless, the Warriors welcome back three impact linebackers - Carpenter, Bell and Shorty - and Sathe at cornerback into the team's 3-5-3 scheme.
Many of the returning players participated on the Del Norte track and field team, in addition to offseason workouts, and have reported gains in strength and speed.
"This is the most mentally and physically (tough) team I've ever been a part of," Carpenter said. "There are 13, 15 people in (the weight room for workouts) in the morning and 16 to 20 in the afternoon. We're in the best shape I've seen the program in."
Rook's new coordinators are Gene Mitchell for offense and Darren Lafazio for defense; Jeremy Lacy was promoted from junior varsity head coach to varsity associate head coach. Danny Forkner has taken over the junior varsity team, with John Maready (offensive coordinator) and Scott Skerik (defensive coordinator) assisting him. Rod Shellabarger has also returned as an assistant.
"One of the things we said was, (the players) have got to see us. They've got to know that we're committed to them," Rook told the Triplicate in April. "The coaches are there in the weight room every day. That's important."
The Warriors have suffered a spate of minor injuries through fall camp that has tested the team's depth, particularly at the skill positions, but the team has been able to conduct practice to the coaches' specifications.
"There's some buy-in to some of the things we're doing," Rook said. "The big thing defensively is letting (players) fly around. Offense-wise, we're on track. We'll continue to take ourselves back (to fundamentals). We want to be great at four or five things, rather than 10 or 12."
Where those four or five things may take them, the Warriors are excited to find out.
"We're all excited this year," Sathe said. "I feel like we're going to do much better this year than we did last year."
Reach Robert Husseman at firstname.lastname@example.org .