Any football coach will tell you that without season long on health or depth, a team's fate can go downhill fast.
That's why Stratton/Liberty coach Toby Kechter greets preseason practice with mounds of optimism.
Kechter, who's in his third year as head coach for the consolidated team and defending 6-man state champions, expected 15 players for fall practice.
More importantly, "We're really deep in the big guys," he said.
Whether it's 6-man, 8-man or 11-man football, it all starts up front.
Anchoring that line is 6-1, 235-pound sophomore Chase Flynn, who's lost 40 pounds since his state-placing freshman wrestling season.
He'll pave the way for senior running back Kyle English, who rushed for 1,500 yards and more than 40 touchdowns in leading the Eagles to the state title, their first since winning the 8-man crown in 2003.
The 44-40 victory over Hi-Plains was even sweeter considering it was the Patriots who knocked Stratton/Liberty out of the 2012 playoffs on a Hail Mary pass.
The Eagles return three starters on both sides of the ball, including English, a solid all-around athlete who is also the defending 1A state long jump and triple jump champion.
"We were balanced (last season)," Kechter said. "We had three kids who could've taken over (at any time)."
That's a good sign, considering two starters, Trent Worden and Kade Drescher, missed the playoffs with injuries. Both will be back a little hungrier.
As for the 6-man classification, "There should be a lot more parity," Kechter said.
Arickaree/Woodlin will give the Eagles all they can handle in the East Central Conference, as will Otis and rebounding Idalia, the latter having won eight state titles in the previous 16 seasons.
Stratton/Liberty, ranked No. 1 in the preseason, has two tough nonconference opponents in Eads and Cheyenne Wells, both expected to vie for playoff berths out of the Southeast Conference.
With Walsh, Cheyenne Wells and Manzanola dropping to 6-man, Eads and Kit Carson will get plenty of challenge in the Southeast Conference. Walsh won five consecutive conference titles in its five previous seasons in 8-man.
Miami-Yoder and South Park also drop a class from 8-man, joining the Central Conference.
"The eight teams that make the playoffs should be quality teams," Kechter said.
Hi-Plains will get a challenge from Otis and 2011 and 2012 state titlist Fleming in the East Central Conference.
Prairie and Peetz are looking to make return playoff appearances from the North Conference. The Southwest Conference will attempt to make inroads in the playoffs but faces an uphill battle.
Defending champion: Stratton/Liberty
Returning All-State players: Kyle English, Stratton/Liberty, Sr.; Alex Nelson, Hi-Plains, Sr.
Playoffs begin: Nov. 1
Championship: Nov. 15 at home site