LANETT — Trikweze Bridges wiped sweat from his brow, standing aside practice in the Wednesday sun.
The senior's Lanett teammates kept at work behind him as he talked about the Panthers’ expectations for this season — after making a 15-0 run last year, after winning the state championship in Class 2A, and after a move to Class 1A in the offseason which helped some folks forecast another title run for Lanett, the team that has a preseason No. 1 ranking to its name to match that thought.
But as he got ready to jump back into drills Wednesday, Bridges offered another way of looking at it.
Yes, Bridges agreed, the Panthers are defending champions in one way.
But in another way, they’re not.
Bridges reached down and picked up his helmet.
“We’re not champions yet,” he smiled. “We ain’t won 1A yet.”
That’s how the Panthers are approaching their season now during the first week of fall practice, summed up by Bridges before he trotted back onto the field to join his teammates and coaches, all preparing for, yes, a chance at another big push, but also a host of new challenges to come.
Lanett returns plenty of firepower from last year’s championship team, including players like Bridges, the touted Oregon commit, and junior quarterback Kristian Story, the Tennessee commit, who are among four all-state players back for another season with the Panthers. Lanett returns six starters on offense and seven on defense, all of whom helped Lanett lift the 2A title last December.
Now, with them back, enrollment numbers are moving the team into a classification for smaller schools — but the Panthers don’t think that’s going to make things any easier.
“1A, I feel like, is just as tough as 2A,” Lanett head coach Clifford Story said.
“Everybody’s already put us in December in Auburn,” he added, referring to the AHSAA championships which rotate back to Jordan-Hare Stadium this season. “I just told the kids, ‘We’re not going to buy into that.’”
Lanett was ranked No. 1 in the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s preseason poll released earlier this week — almost unanimously so, receiving 30 of 31 first-place votes in the polling.
But, like their coach, Panthers players said they weren’t investing much time or thought into that.
“We saw it,” junior wide receiver and defensive back Quae Houston said of the ranking. “But we don’t do too much talking on social media. We just let our hard work show for us.”
Besides, there’s plenty of unknowns Lanett is forced into facing this season, now playing a region that’s all-new to the team, and eyeing title contenders across the state that are completely unfamiliar to the Panthers.
Story said Lanett has always competed in Class 2A since he’s been the head coach, as he enters his 10th season at the helm of the program. He admits there are teams out there across the Class 1A landscape that he isn’t too familiar with yet.
And, Houston pointed out, the Panthers are entering this new world with targets on their backs.
“When we won the state championship, it seemed like we had everybody’s best game,” Houston said. “They might not even be good, but when they play against us, they take it up to a whole other level. We’ve got to play our best every game.
“Everybody wants to beat us.”
For their part, that’s something the Panthers expect come kickoff in a few weeks.
“Everybody’s going to give us all they’ve got, because we’re the 2A state champs,” Bridges said. “They’re going to want to feel like, ‘We beat somebody that won 2A state champs, so we can beat anybody.’ “They’re going to give us their best. Every team will.”
Being a No. 1 team in the state, that’s going to come with the territory — but the Panthers are still looking to thrive in it.
“Hey, I commend the voters and all the sports writers and all that for giving us the publicity, because the program has been down. We worked extremely hard to build it up and get kids working hard in the program,” Story said. “All that stuff is fine and good.
“But, the game has got to be won between these lines. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Lanett powered through Class 2A, Region 5 last season, but this year will challenge the likes of Wadley, a semifinal playoff team a season ago, and area foes Loachapoka and Notasulga in the new Class 1A, Region 4.
Regardless of who’s across the field, though, Houston said the Panthers are working to play up to their own standards, and not anyone else’s.
“We came in with the mindset not to be complacent,” Houston said. “We know we were 15-0 last year, but not one game did we play our best.
“We didn’t really have a perfect game,” he added. “We had our ups and downs, but we never did play a perfect game the entire season.”
Now, in 2018, there’s challenge, and there’s opportunity for the Panthers.
“We’re excited,” Story said. “We just want to play football. That’s the bottom line. We just want to play football, regardless of what classification we’re in and who we’re playing.”
Lanett kicks off its season against Valley on Aug. 24. That’s when the Panthers, who were only voted as high as No. 2 in Class 2A last year before the postseason, will make their debut as a top-ranked team.
“I don’t think they had a big head,” Story said of his players. “I think they’re just confident. To be honest with you, I don’t think that they are buying into any of the hype at all.
“They understand what’s at stake,” he added. “They understand what it takes to work. They now know not to look ahead.
“We’re going to play one week at a time, one game at a time, and see where the chips fall.”