In its first practice as the Kansas Class 5A defending state football champion, Mill Valley went through drills Monday afternoon in a businesslike manner.
Despite having only four starters back on offense and two on defense, Mill Valley has 23 seniors who understand what it takes to be successful.
In fact, some of those seniors wore T-shirts earned the second week of August during a conditioning camp with an inscription on the back that reads: Champions do ordinary things better than anyone else. 1-0.
“Basically 1-0 is the philosophy of our program,” said Joel Applebee, who is entering his seventh season as Mill Valley’s head coach. “It is being the best you can in the moment. You want to be the best in that rep, the best in that practice, best in that game. Doing the best you can in that moment.”
The message on the back of those T-shirts means more to the Jaguars than the metaphorical target on their backs as the reigning 5A state champions.
“I think it has made us work harder,” said senior free safety Joel Donn. “It almost gives us an extra push, especially when we are not having a good day. We can’t have this bad day because everybody is going to give us their best shot.”
The Jaguars finished 12-1 overall, losing only to Staley High School by seven points on Oct. 2. They capped their magical season with an impressive 35-14 victory over perennial 5A power Bishop Carroll.
“It was awesome,” said senior wide receiver Ben Hartman. “It was coach Applebee’s goal since he came here. He built this program so well. Every year we focused on each week. That is how we got to the state title game and won it. But that is the past. There are a lot of teams out for us.”
The challenge of a new season and new group of players eager to leave their legacy at Mill Valley is what is going to make 2016 an exciting season.
“Today is my favorite day all year,” said senior defensive end Blaine Boudreaux. “I look forward to it and getting together with the team. I think we are going to have a really good season. We are going to work hard to make it happen.”
It was easy to hear the enthusiasm in Applebee’s voice as he talked about the upcoming season after the first practice.
“It is always fun having the whole group out here,” Applebee said. “You can’t beat the first day no matter what the situation is. The kids are excited. The coaches are excited, and the community is excited.”
Applebee, though, has a group of seniors who understand Tuesday’s practice will be more important than the first one, and when the next day arrives, that practice will be important.
“Our coaches were saying that the great teams have the second day as good as the first day,” Donn said. “That is what I will be looking forward to tomorrow, coming out here trying to get everybody up and going, especially in the morning when we lift.”
The Jaguars want to make sure they are ready for the challenge of defending a state title and joining a new league. Last season they were an independent, which allowed them to play Staley and Derby. This season they are joining the rugged East Kansas League, which features such football powerhouses as Blue Valley, Bishop Miege and St. Thomas Aquinas.
“I really believe if it is not the premier league, it is one of the best leagues in the state of Kansas as far as 5A and 6A goes,” Applebee said. “It is going to be a challenge every single week. We feel like as a program we got ourselves ready the last couple of years playing Derby and Staley and Blue Valley Northwest. Playing those types of teams obviously paid off last year to get us ready to play at a high level.
“We know it is going to be more of a challenge because every week we are playing a great team. Our kids are ready to accept those challenges and have fun with it.”