POCA -- Coach Seth Ramsey called it "a perfect storm," referencing Poca’s 9-1 run through the prep football regular season a year ago.
But that storm finished with a bit of a whimper, and it has brought a hungry bunch of Dots back into the fold this season.
Poca finished up its three-week summer practice period with a 7-on-7 tournament at O.O. White Stadium on Friday, with Lincoln County, Ravenswood, Roane County, Tolsia and Buffalo coming in to compete.
At this point a year ago, not many around the state would’ve guessed the Dots would rip off wins in their first nine games of the season, but heading into this season with plenty of that firepower back, the word is out. Players and coaches know they must adjust to those high expectations.
“We knew going into the year we’d be better, we didn’t know how much better,” Ramsey said. “I think the conference was down a little bit all around, it was kind of a perfect storm for us. But our guys have been working well and we understand there’s a bigger target on our back now. We’ve got to do the little things even better than we ever have before.”
“There’s definitely a target on our back this year,” junior running back Ethan Payne added. “We don’t think about it, just go out and play football and play the best we can. This year we’re going to have to play with a chip on our shoulder, knowing everyone is coming to get us.”
Payne’s season was a microcosm of the Dots’ as a whole. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark in the team’s first seven games before going down with a hip injury against Winfield. Payne missed the team’s last three regular-season games before giving it a go in the playoffs against Weir. Playing at less than 100 percent, Payne was limited to 30 yards on 11 carries as the Dots were trounced 41-14 at home in the first round. Payne finished with 1,113 yards on 121 carries and 17 touchdowns.
Payne’s size and quickness make him one of the best options in the backfield in the state. Listed at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds a year ago, and likely adding to both of those figures since, he will be leaned upon again to shoulder a significant portion of the load. As the summer period comes to a close, all signs seem to indicate he’s ready to go.
“He’s been moving pretty well left and right and cutting,” Ramsey said. “Right now he’s pretty healthy and if we can get out of today with everybody healthy, we’ll be pretty happy.”
While Poca does return several players with playing experience, the Dots still need to replace six starters on both sides of the ball. Those losses particularly piled up along the offensive and defensive lines, which were points of focus over the three-week period.
“Building some depth on the lines,” Ramsey said. “We lost five of our front seven on defense and that’s something we really wanted to focus on, just trying to create depth on both sides of the ball. In our league, guys are going to get banged up and you’ve got to have some depth to make it through the year.”
“We tried to improve on our run blocking and quick game,” Payne said. “Trying to mix some new people in and spreading the ball around.”
For those back in the fold, it isn’t the success of last season that has carried into the offseason, but the bitter taste of the disappointing end. Nine wins couldn’t make up for those final two losses in which the Dots were outscored 64-14.
That is a good thing as Ramsey has had to do little in the way of motivation during the gruelingly hot three weeks. And no one may be more ready to go than Payne, who practically jumped out of his helmet when asked about his readiness.
“We’re definitely ready, we’re ready to play right now,” Payne said. “We’re expecting to go deeper into the playoffs. The state championship is our goal this year.”