One step forward, two steps back.
That's how it must have felt for Paul Laurence Dunbar fans watching the team last season. In the first year under Coach Paul Rains, the Bulldogs went 6-6 with a first-round playoff win against Tates Creek. They upended every city team they played except for Henry Clay, which ended their season.
Last season, Dunbar was left with only six seniors and struggled to find wins after a 3-0 start. The team finished 4-7 after getting blown out by Central Hardin.
"All those city teams we'd beat for the first time in forever, they were all wanting payback," Rains said. "We had a young team and here everybody's wanting revenge, so it was a rough year in that way. But we played as good of football as we could play."
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Of Dunbar's six seniors in 2014, Rains said only four really got to play meaningful downs. The attrition of football eventually cut that number further.
"We finished the season with only two seniors on the field and started four or five freshmen," he said.
This edition of Dunbar includes 12 seniors but is still the youngest team in the city. They'll start five sophomores on offense. Injuries, while not welcomed by any program, are something the Bulldogs will be emphatically trying to avoid.
One upside to Dunbar's down year was getting those young guys some turf time. Sophomores Nate Gay and Jefferson Harkless will be two of the team's best weapons on offense.
Gay, a diminutive but agile running back, said he doesn't get offended by those who might underestimate him because of his 5-8 frame.
"All I gotta tell 'em is watch come game time," Gay said with a smile. " ... I don't worry about what they say."
On the other end of the height spectrum is Dontell Brown, a 6-6 receiver who plays center on Dunbar's basketball team.
Because he's undersized on the court, Brown said he gets beat up a lot regardless of which sport he's playing.
"I don't mind it to a certain extent," said Brown, who added that he brings a "good attitude and swagger" to the Dunbar sideline.
Follow the leader
A team scarce in seniority last season now has 12 young men eager to fill the leadership role.
There's Nick Martin, a defensive end who was all-city as a sophomore before breaking his foot at the end of June and missing the entire 2014 season. He joked off the injury, saying he's "too fat" to be playing basketball, and is ready to get back between the lines.
"We got seniors," Martin said with a laugh when asked why Dunbar will have a better season than last year. "We didn't have seniors last year, I don't know any other way to put it."
Outside linebacker Quinton Dixon said these Bulldogs are on the same page and have built better chemistry than previous squads of which he's been a part. He enjoys having a role in molding the underclassmen, or "little guys."
"We got so many little guys but they're willing to learn," Dixon said. "We ain't got nobody talking back, nobody second guessing us. It's real easy to talk to these little guys. They listen."
Returning all-city senior lineman LaDarrius Morton said the locker room can be childish at times with all its youth, but at the end of the day everyone's a brother who would stand up for one another.
"It's hard at times but we have to step up," Morton said. "It's just come to a time where we have to step up."
Why will Dunbar be successful?
Senior athlete Derante Sanders: "We are a lot more experienced. Everybody's more confident now than they were last year."