With the start of each season comes the usual headaches for coach Mark Athanas, who spends each preseason installing a playbook, getting his Manchester Essex football team in game-shape and worrying about the depth of the small school's roster.
As the Hornets prepare to open their season on Friday, though, Athanas has found remarkable stability at what is likely the most important spot for any high school football team: the offensive backfield.
The return of senior quarterback Cory Burnham and last season's leading rusher, senior Jake Fitzgerald, has left Athanas with plenty of options in the backfield.
Throw in the likes of senior running back Zac Fleming and senior wide receiver John Beardsley -- who combine with Burnham, Fitzgerald and lineman Julian Flavin as the team's five captains -- and Athanas finds himself overloaded with experience in the skill positions that often make or break a team's season.
"Our strength offensively is going to be through our quarterback," said Athanas, whose team finished last season at 5-6. "Cory's a second-year player and he did well last year. That experience and an experienced backfield is where our team's strength is going to be."
It should hardly come as a surprise, then, that Athanas will be looking to capitalize on a strong running game when the Hornets take the field at Amesbury on Friday.
But despite Fitzgerald and Burnham's combined 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground last season, the Hornets intend to establish, above all else, balance in their offensive attack.
"Our biggest strength would have to be running the ball," said Burnham, who also threw for 747 yards and five touchdowns last season. "We've got a lot of strong runners, but running the ball is definitely going to open up the passing game for us."
"Last year, we were very run-oriented," Athanas added. "But how we run our offense, if we can get balance, we'll be in good shape. We want to throw and run the same amount and keep defenses off balance. Cory [Burnham] can do both, he ran well last year and he's been throwing the ball well."
After what Athanas considered a sloppy performance in the team's first scrimmage against Pentucket, he was happy with the progress he saw when the team took the field against St. John's Prep last weekend. Even more importantly, the team has come out of the preseason with no substantial injury problems.
That progress hasn't been limited to the offensive side of the ball. With a slew of starters returning from last year's defense -- including co-captains Fleming and Flavin on the defensive line, which Athanas identified as the key to the defense -- the Hornets' defensive unit has jelled nicely to this point.
"We have some three-year starters coming back," Beardsley, a defensive back, said, "so we're looking really experienced."
Behind the line, though, Athanas is looking for leadership from an unusual source: sophomore linebacker Doug Rodier, who started at middle linebacker as a freshman last season and is looking to make a jump to becoming more of an impact player this season.
"He's in the middle again, and even though he's young, we're looking for Doug to be one of our leaders," Athanas said.
Despite their experience and high expectations, success is far from a guarantee for the Hornets this season. With a schedule that includes strong Northeastern Conference/Cape Ann League Tier 4 in Hamilton-Wenham -- looking to make its third straight trip to the postseason -- Lynnfield and North Reading, it's going to be a tough road for the Hornets.
In order to hang in through the grueling conference slate, it will take more than just a good game plan and an experienced squad.
In fact, the season may hinge on Athanas' never-ending concern: depth.
"We're always concerned about depth," Athanas said. "Injuries are our biggest concern. So far, we've had a good preseason, limited on injuries and we're ready to go. If we stay healthy we should be in good shape."
AT A GLANCE:
Last Year's Record: 5-6
Head Coach: Mike Athanas (9th year)
Captains: Cory Burnham, QB, Sr.; John Beardsley, WR/DB, Sr.; Jake Fitzgerald, RB/DB, Sr.; Zac Fleming, RB/DL, Sr.; Julian Flavin, OL/DL, Sr.
Returning Starters: Cory McCollum, OL, Sr.; Chris Wright, OL, Sr.; Henry Gedney, LB, Sr.; Chris Dumont, DB, Jr.; Brian McAuliff, DB, Sr.; Doug Rodier, LB, Soph.
Leading returning rusher: Jake Fitzgerald (142 carries, 756 yards, 7TD)
Leading returning passer: Cory Burnham (48 completions, 747 yards, 5TD)
Leading returning receiver: John Beardsley (10 rec., 171 yards, 2 TD)
Last league title: 2008 (Commonwealth Athletic Conference Small)
2012 Manchester Essex football schedule Friday, September 7 at Amesbury 7:00 p.m. Friday, September 14 vs. Saugus 7:00 p.m. Friday, September 21 at Cathedral 7:00 p.m. Saturday, September 29 at Pope John TBA Friday, October 5 vs. Austin Prep 5:00 p.m. Friday, October 12 vs. Northeast 7:00 p.m. Saturday, October 20 at Hamilton-Wenham 7:00 p.m. Friday, October 26 vs. North Reading 7:00 p.m. Friday, November 2 at Ipswich 7:00 p.m. Friday, November 9 vs. Lynnfield 7:00 p.m. Thursday, November 22 vs. Georgetown 10:00 a.m.