The Paonia High School football team kicks off the season on Friday night against Center, and for the first time in four years, Taylor Walters will not be on the field.
Walters graduated and took his 125 career touchdowns and two state championships to Colorado Mesa University, where he will play at the next level along with former Eagles teammate Jeramiah Hillman.
"Like every year, we miss the seniors that graduated, but it's always exciting because there's some young kids waiting to fill their roles," head coach Brent McRae said. "We got some kids that have been watching Taylor and Miah and the other kids who graduated, and they want to be them."
Paonia will not lack for veteran leadership. This year's senior class, led by standouts Trevor Smith, Dagan Rienks and Colby Simpson, has played in the 1A state championship game in each of the last three years. Paonia won two of them and then fell 27-20 to perennial Eagles foe Buena Vista last year.
"Our seniors are going to be huge," McRae said. "This is the first group of mine that they have been in this program the whole time. They were freshmen when they started with me and now they're seniors. They know what to do. The leadership's there; the expectations are there. They're going to carry us a long way."
In preseason work, as he is known to do, McRae rotated quarterbacks with Rienks and junior Caden Meilner getting all of the reps.
The two are a study in contrast. Rienks, listed at 6-foot-6, has legs like tree trunks and is nearly impossible to tackle. Meilner, who is not listed at 6-foot-6, is quick on his feet and runs a speedy option game.
"Caden's going to see some time, and Dagan is a tall kid so we've got some things lined up for him," McRae said. "Quarterback is obviously an important position so we've got to have somebody to keep things progressing. It's always good just in case to give that backup some reps."
Paonia's championship run has always had one signature characteristic: physical defense.
Don't expect that part of the game to change this year. This Eagles defense might turn out to be the best they've had in four years.
Smith, listed at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, is expected to have a dominant season, and junior linebackers Jaden Miller and Cyrus Malek-Madani will bolster a very tough Eagles defense.
"We're going to live and die by our defense," McRae said. "You know physicality is the name of the game. It's football. We preach that. Be smart, play with your head up, play physical and play fast. I think our defense is ready. It's a veteran defense, and we got some good positions there."
The Eagles will be tested early and often through a difficult schedule that includes four road games in a row after Friday night's Homecoming game.
McRae said the toughest thing about the stretch will be not getting to play for the Paonia community.
"That's the toughest thing. You know, we have a pretty special place," McRae said. "The kids love playing at the park, under the lights, under the 'P'. It was tough scheduling this year, we couldn't get a lot of people to play us. It's what we got so we're going roll with it."
The preseason CHSAA poll puts 1A defending champ Buena Vista at No. 1 and Paonia is No. 2. Meeker, at No. 10, is the only other Western Slope League team to make the rankings.
"That's probably about right," McRae said. "We should be in the mix. I think we've earned it."