In between grueling two-a-day practices on a muggy August morning, Fort Mill football coach Ed Susi and players discussed their mindset heading into the rapidly approaching season.
As they prepared to return to the field for another two hours of conditioning, one word seemed to hang on the lips of the Yellow Jackets: Improvement.
"The last two seasons have been tough on us, but we've used them as a springboard to get better," Susi said. "We're tired of losing, and our 12 seniors, nine of which have been starting since their sophomore year, have dealt with the brunt of it. Frankly, it's time to show everyone that we can be a formidable football team."
The Fort Mill varsity football program has been reeling since the establishment of Nation Ford in 2007. Last season the Yellow Jackets went 1-10 and were outscored by an average margin of 40-16, playing one of the most unrelenting schedules in the state against such perennial powerhouses Northwestern, Clover, South Pointe and Rock Hill.
Based on the effort he's seen from his players in the offseason, Susi has cause for optimism.
"After the (high school) split happened, our rising senior players went from about 40 to a dozen," Susi said. "But in four seasons coaching here, these kids have never worked harder to prepare for a season, and the rising varsity players we have on deck are looking very promising."
The impending successes or failures for this year's team fall squarely on the shoulders of senior leaders like do-it-all halfback Asa Kryst and defensive end/center Cameron Kilpatrick. Their experience and work ethic serve as a model for the younger players, and for them, this is the last season to make an indelible mark on the Fort Mill football program.
"We've worked our butts off to get ready for this season," said Kryst, whose many responsibilities include the HB option, kickoff returns and place kicking. "And I want to tell the school and the people that will be in the stands that you're going to see a new Fort Mill team out there this season."
For Kilpatrick, the team's renewed focus and determination, along with a timely move down to Class AAA competition, can bring the "new Fort Mill team" mentality into fruition.
"The move down helps us and gives us a little breathing room in terms of schedule," Kilpatrick said. "We've been playing the best teams in the state, and that's given our team a sense of toughness that should help us compete in every game on the schedule."
While not technically a senior, rising junior quarterback Preston Fry was described as a "senior in mentality and experience" by Susi. His poise and knowledge of the playbook has thrust Fry into a leadership role, which he embraces whole-heartedly.
"I've been running an option-based offense in one form or another since middle school, and played varsity my freshman year," Fry said. "Now that I've had a couple seasons to get used to it, I think it's all come together for me and I'm ready to lead my team in the huddle."
The Yellow Jackets single win in the 2009 season came against their heated rivals Nation Ford, whom they defeated 35-17 to close an otherwise dismal season on a high note.
While they've used that season-ending victory as inspiration during the offseason, Fry says a common misconception about his team has given him even more reason to be motivated.
"Because we haven't really beaten the other teams we've played besides Nation Ford, a lot of people have written us off as a team that only tries once a year," he said. "That's definitely been a source of anger for our team, and we've used it to fuel us to win more games this season."
Starting on Friday, the Fort Mill begins a series of scrimmages building up to their Aug. 27 home-opener against Lugoff-Elgin.
For the Yellow Jackets, whose road to improvement began in the offseason, their mission to bring a more competitive team to the field begins here.
FORT MILL SCHEDULE
Aug. 27 Lugoff-Elgin at Fort Mill, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 3 Fort Mill at Ridge View, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 9 Fort Mill at Clover, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 17 Lewisville at Fort Mill, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 24 Broome at Fort Mill, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 1 Fort Mill at South Pointe, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 8 Chester at Fort Mill, 7:30 p.m.*
Oct. 15 York at Fort Mill, 7:30 p.m.*
Oct. 22 Fort Mill at Fairfield Central, 8 p.m.*
Oct. 29 Fort Mill at Nation Ford, 7:30 p.m.*
* Region game