Players at Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep know they will be competing with enormous bull’s-eyes on their jerseys all season.
They wouldn’t want it any other way.
“It’s good for the program,” defensive back and linebacker Andrew Stutz said.
“It makes us work that much harder. Practices have been a lot quicker, and we’ve gotten down to business right away this year. We like the target on our chest.”
It’s a mark that comes with being a defending state champion, but it’s also one opposing teams will find difficult to hit squarely.
With 17 returning starters, seven of which could be playing Division I college football next season, repeating as 4A-II champs is a strong possibility for the Saints.
Unlike last year when it featured a nearly unstoppable offense, Notre Dame will be led this time around by its defense, which returns all but one starter.
“We’re counting on our defense to make things happen for us,” coach Scot Bemis said.
The Saints lost two key offensive players to graduation in Parade All-American quarterback Sean Renfree and receiver Brandon Hirneise, who led the state in receiving yards. Bemis, though, believes his team will be bigger, stronger, faster and better at every position except quarterback.
He said his linemen are 20 to 30 pounds heavier than last year, and that extra weight should produce an abundance of running lanes for speedster Patrick Foley, who rushed for 761 yards as a junior.
The Saints weren’t underdogs very often last season, but being favored to win it all from the start presents a new set of challenges.
“Our kids know what they can do,” Bemis said. “They have to really step it up as far as playing with that target on our chest, expect that everybody is coming after us every single game. They have to find a way to keep that same desire and hunger.”