It's easy to look at Bluffton's 2017 football season and be impressed. They had a 5-6 record after only seven victories in the previous three seasons combined.
But coach Brett Kunkel, who is entering his second season as the Tigers' head coach, knows the road is only going to get tougher.
And he's told his players as much.
“I think that the expectations of Bluffton football have been raised a little bit,” he said. “I've told them, 'Last year was our easiest year because nobody expected anything out of you. It's Bluffton football and people haven't had that expectation of real success. Teams are going to be gunning for you now and we're not a team, I hope, that people can just circle as a W anymore. We're going to get teams' best shots now, week in and week out.'
“Our league is very talented, and it's going to be a big challenge.”
Especially given what the Tigers lost to graduation, including 1,600-yard rusher Brandon Lockwood.
What Kunkel raves about more than anything he sees on the field, though, is what's between his players' ears, especially how the older kids lead from the top down.
“I feel really, really great about our seniors,” he said. “This is probably, from a leadership standpoint and a locker room standpoint, probably one of the better groups of guys I've seen going into a year. That part for me is exciting. I feel really great about our locker room.”
Kunkel admitted there can be some growing pains for a new coach and he experienced some of them last year; not 100 percent of the players were fully on board with what he wanted to do.
But now he feels they are and it will show on the field.
“We're trying to build a family,” he said. “And we used F.A.M.I.L.Y. as an acronym. 'Forget About Me I Love You' and try to just eliminate selfishness and just attitudes, things about 'me.' I really don't feel like we have any guys in our locker room who are 'me' guys, and it's a noticeable change.”
The Tigers' offense averaged 222 yards rushing per game last year and, to continue that, will need good performances from Everett Johnson, Cody Mittlestedt and Cameron Coleman. Look for the passing game to get upped, too, with Gavin King making the throws – he was 67 of 138 for 851 yards with eight touchdowns – and Blake Kizer reeling them in after he had 28 catches for 242 yards and two touchdowns.
The offensive line looks solid with Andre Hughes and Nicholas Sprankles, and the defense has six starters back, including linemen Levi Boots, who had 46 tackles, and Johnson, who had 52, and linebacker Evan Kitt, who had 54. The question mark may be an inexperienced secondary.
But the Tigers have enjoyed proving the doubters wrong lately.
Coach: Brent Kunkel, 5-6 in 2nd year at school
Last year: 5-6, 3-3 ACAC
Key players: Senior QB/K Gavin King, senior RB/DL Everett Johnson, sophomore RB/DB Cody Mittlestedt, junior RB/LB Cameron Coleman, Blake Kizer, senior OL/LB Andre Hughes, senior LB Evan Kitt, senior OL/DL Nicholas Sprankles, senior OL/DL Levi Boots
Aug. 17: Northfield
Aug. 24: at Manchester
Aug. 31: at South Adams
Sept. 7: Woodlan
Sept. 14: Jay County
Sept. 21: at Southern Wells
Sept. 28: Heritage
Oct. 5: at Adams Central
Oct. 12: Lakeland
Northfield, L, 42-30
Manchester, W, 8-0
South Adams, L, 51-27
Woodlan, L, 54-19
Jay County, W, 37-28
Southern Wells, W, 52-6
Heritage, W, 34-32
Adams Central, L, 46-0
Lima Central Catholic (OH), L, 54-6
Bremen, W, 27-19
Central Noble, L, 54-14