“That’s one of our goals this year. We bring back a pretty good nucleus of players, too,” Pioneers coach Nick Johnson said.
“We’re hoping another summer in the weight room and another year in the program will carry over and build on what we’ve already done.”
The Pioneers went 7-4 last season, exiting the first round of the playoffs at the hands of Grundy.
In the final game of the regular season, Thomas Walker was in position to earn a share of the Cumberland District championship, but J.I. Burton emphatically denied the Pioneers, 42-0.
“Norton can have anybody coaching and they’ve still got the athletes,” noted Johnson, who briefly addressed the offseason coaching flux at his team’s league rival.
“What’s going over at Norton is a rough situation for the school and the kids, but Coach (Jacob) Caudill will do a good job. Norton is the king of the district until somebody beats them. Championships aren’t won on paper.
“We just want an opportunity to be playing for a district title at the end,” Johnson added. “Last year, we played ourselves into that position. A lot of my kids had no earthly idea what that was like and J.I. Burton just beat the tar out of us.”
The Pioneers return seven players on each side of the ball in the two-way tradition of smaller Southwest Virginia programs.
“We’re looking right now at a 24- or 25-man roster,” Johnson said. “We like the smaller numbers because we know that these are the kids that want to be here and want to work.”
Among the team’s key returners are senior wide receiver Logan Ely, junior running back Kenny Ball and senior lineman Ethen Hounshell.
On defense, All-Cumberland District first-teamer Jaron Warf — who recorded 98 tackles as a sophomore last year — returns along with Jason Cowden at defensive end.
Cowden was all-state honorable mention as a sophomore.
A favorable district schedule awaits the Pioneers, who have Rye Cove, Twin Springs and Burton at home.
Aug. 30 at Cumberland Gap
Sept. 13 at Castlewood
Sept. 20 Rye Cove
Sept. 27 at Pineville, Ky.
Oct. 4 Harlan, Ky.
Oct. 11 Hancock County
Oct. 18 at Twin Valley
Oct. 25 at Eastside
Nov. 1 Twin Springs
Oct. 8 J.I. Burton