For years, it seemed you didn't even have to look at the roster to know that Putnam City North was going to be good. Surely a playoff-quality team, and maybe challenging for a state title.
But with back-to-back four-win seasons, those days are gone.
Preseason projections on the Panthers haven't been the best, with opposing coaches predicting them to miss the playoffs for the third straight year, and media picking them in the bottom half — as low as No. 25 in one case — of the 32-team Class 6A field.
The message has been received at PC North.
“There's lots of motivation around here right now,” receiver/defensive back Alex Clark said. “A lot of us started last year and we're seniors. We want to go further. We're tired of 4-6. We're tired of people looking at us like this isn't a very good program.
“We haven't been getting any respect and we're trying to earn it this year.”
The 2011 season started with a 2-1 record, but the Panthers didn't find the win column again until winning the last two games of the year. You can bet Week 1 will be big, with the rivalry game against Putnam City, which the Pirates have won the last two years.
One big difference from a year ago for the Panthers, quarterback John Robert Simon is much more comfortable in his second season leading the offense. And he has experienced players around him as well.
“It has made a big difference having that year under my belt,” the senior said. “Last year, the tempo was so much different as a varsity quarterback. But after playing a whole year, I'm able to read more defenses and pick up the tempo of the offense.
“We have guys like Alex Clark and Robert Davis back at receiver, and a couple running backs, Tae Moore and Nathaniel Ocran. Those guys played a lot of varsity time last year, which has helped this year to bring experience for the younger guys coming up.”
Though most of the line is new, Clark sees promise in the offense.
“The coaches trust (Simon) more to make some of the throws, to make some of the calls on his own,” Clark said. “We're gonna be pushing the ball up the field, trying to get us going.”
But more than anything, strong motivation lies in erasing those preseason perceptions of Putnam City North football.
“We see preseason rankings and we know it's not a big deal, but it's motivation, knowing that a lot of people are doubting us,” Simon said. “We like being the underdogs. We have nothing to lose. If we win, we're gonna prove a lot of people wrong.
“If we work hard and don't win, then that's the outcome. But we'll go out and play our hearts out every game.”