On his team's first official day of football practice Monday, fourth-year Bishop Dwenger coach Jason Garrett was already talking about the end of the season.
“We always begin with the end in mind,” said Garrett, who is 35-5 with the Saints. “God willing, we're looking at cold November practices and practice on Thanksgiving morning (before the state championship game that weekend). ... It's a long way away from today, so it's a day-by-day process.”
Dwenger took its first step toward what it hopes will be chilly late-November games on a warm, blindingly-sunny day at Shields Field, its gold helmets shining in the bright afternoon light. One hundred and fifty-seven players, a program record, showed up for the first day of practice.
The Saints went 10-2 last year, their fourth straight 10-win season, and beat North Side for a sectional title then lost to Zionsville 30-21 in the regional. But it's an SAC loss to Homestead, 35-34 in triple-overtime, that's driving Dwenger, which finished 8-1 in conference play.
That defeat has added fuel to the fire in offseason workouts.
“That's huge for us,” captain and prolific receiving target Rocco Ciocca said. “That Homestead game last year, it's emotional, it's an emotional roller coaster. We're going to be coming in with a chip on our shoulder this year because we want that SAC title.”
Ciocca is one of four captains, along with K.J. Tippmann, Adam Lee and Gavin Groves. Cole Carey is the team's “discipleship captain.”
Offseason workouts, which began in earnest in January, have already helped the team take a big step in defining its identity. When the Saints suited up for practice Monday, they wore shirts with a mantra on the back that had been forged in offseason conditioning sessions: “Grit.”
“They said, 'Coach we're going to be a little bit undersized and there's a lot of teams that are going to be projected to be ahead of us,' ” Garrett said. “So they've embraced that. It's a gritty bunch of guys that are unified and trust one another and play tough. They've got a chance.”
Still, the Saints are not without question marks. Three-year starting quarterback Brenden Lytle, the school's all-time leader in passing yards, has graduated and there are four players vying to replace him. Garrett isn't ready to handicap the race yet, but he feels the position as a whole is promising, as does Ciocca.
“I have full confidence in whoever is our quarterback,” Ciocca said.