Ask Northwest football coach Kevin Stein to compare the experience level of this year’s team to last year’s, and he’s quick to respond.
"It’s 180 degrees different."
Last year a large, experienced senior class helped guide the Vikings to a 6-4 season and the school’s first playoff appearance since 2004.
But this year Northwest enters the season with only one returning starter on offense and two on defense.
"We were fortunate enough last year to have a great senior class that athletically was good," Stein said. "They worked really hard and they developed that team chemistry. That’s kind of what we’re missing right now.
"Right now we’re just trying to find our way. We’re trying to figure out who’s No. 1, who’s No. 2 or who needs to be the resident bad guy, who needs to be the good guy. We’re still trying to figure out those things, which is hard to do."
It isn’t just Xs and Os that need to be figured out when inserting so many new starters into the lineup at one time.
"Accountability is a big thing that we’re talking about," Stein said. "We have some players that don’t like being held accountable. It really ticks them off. Then we have other guys who are trying to hold people accountable but not being true to themselves.
"So we need that accountability to get going. That’s a big challenge for us."
But Stein is seeing positive signs in the team chemistry department.
"Some of our older kids are starting to respond to some of our younger guys who are vocal leaders, which to me is pretty mature," he said. "When you’re the big dog or the oldest guy, you don’t want to hear anything from a younger guy. But maturity-wise they’re doing that.
"And our younger guys are vocal. They’ll step up and say stuff."
Senior running back/linebacker Shayne Arriola said the team is trying to overcome the challenges that come with losing so many starters.
"I think it’s difficult because we had so many starters and so many seniors that we depended on for leadership," he said. "I played some. I lettered, but it was nothing like the seniors who started on both sides of the ball.
"I think we have a lot of talent, but we’ve got to be there for each other. We have to be more of a team this year."
There have been expected ups and downs.
"We’ve been doing it one practice at a time," Arriola said. "Our first practice, coach said we lost it. We lost that day. That day was done. So we had to come back the next day and win that day.
"That’s been our mentality – we have to win every single day, every single practice."
Stein said: "We look great sometimes for 15 minutes, then we fall off for 15 minutes. So I want consistency from all positions."
When it does come to the Xs and Os, Stein said things won’t change even with the new faces.
"Schematically and what we do offensively and defensively, we’re not going to be different," he said. "We’re not changing anything that we do.
"Now, the bodies, the players are a little different. So we may run this play a little more than we did last year because it didn’t fit those kids or vice versa. But nothing else will change."
There has been an increased focus on fundamentals.
"We can’t just go out there and run around somebody," Stein said. "(Graduated receiver) Alex Larsen had great feet. There were times he just ran around people. The chemistry with him and (graduated quarterback ) Zach (Rouzee) was great. (Graduated linebacker) Conner (Eberhardt) was able to run through people.
"That worked for them, and we didn’t want to take it away from them. This year we’re trying to be a little more fundamentally sound with what we’re doing offensively and defensively. We kind of have to go back and be more basic on offense and defense so they don’t have to think."
Five of the nine teams on Northwest’s schedule had winning seasons last year. Even Friday’s opener at Sidney — which went 1-8 — won’t be an easy one.
"I don’t like Class B scheduling," Stein said with a laugh. "Sidney has kind of been down for a little while. But I was watching film from last year, and this kid’s a sophomore, this kid’s a sophomore, this kid’s a junior, oh, here’s one senior. They’re extremely excited.
"I think Hastings is excited to move to their spread offense with a new coach. They always had great fundamentals when coach (Rick) Ripperger was there. Then you get into the meat grind of the McCooks and Lexingtons. I think they’re going to play great. Aurora is Aurora. You have coach (Glen) Snodgrass and York. They’re all going to play great."
A good start against Sidney and in the home opener against Hastings would do Northwest a world of good.
"I think the key is starting well the first couple of weeks," Stein said. "Sidney and Hastings are young programs. We’d love to come out of there 2-0 or at worse 1-1."
Even though the faces are new, the success of last year could still benefit the Vikings this time around.
"Kids are excited except we’re still a little hesitant," Stein said. "Kids are still trying to feel themselves out. But that definitely raised the level of expectations and what we want to do."
Senior tackle Chas Canfield agreed.
"We’re pretty excited," he said. "Even though it’s a whole new team, we’re ready to see what we can do out there now."