PLAINVILLE — He’s never been one to shy away from a challenge.

That’s a good thing, seeing that Grant Stephenson’s team really has no choice in their opposition.

The Plainville coach knows every school in the Mid-Continent League is going to face a tough schedule each year — and that includes multiple teams that are perennial powers.

Now with the Cardinals making a giant leap into that upper echelon after last year — the team went 11-2 and finished as the Class 2-1A state runner-up — Plainville has added another top team to the MCL ranks.

But for the Cardinals, things won’t get any easier. They lost a talented senior-laden group to graduation that accounted for much of the offensive and defensive success in 2016.

And, Plainville is facing stiff competition the first three weeks of the season in the likes of Smith Center, Norton and Phillipsburg.

“Those first three games, even though they are three really tough teams, they set the bar to where we need to be,” Stephenson said. “So I really like playing them, and I like playing them early because I think they make us a better team. But if things don’t go our way, you still have to be able as a coach, a staff and a team to find the positives so they can move on and play the next one. There’s a lot more season left after those three games, but win or lose, they’re going to be good for us.”

Tough might not accurately describe those first three games for the Cardinals. Plainville goes on the road in Week 1 to face the Redmen, a team the Cardinals beat twice last year — including a 14-0 win in the 2-1A sub-state game.

“The thing is I really like Coach (Darren) Sasse and Smith Center,” Stephenson said. “They’re a tradition that’s really good. We haven’t beat them this year, but we beat them twice last year. They’re going to have a chip on their shoulders. But we also got to play them twice on our home field last year. We’ll be going there this year twice, if we play them twice. But Sasse was great to talk to before every game and after every game last year. He’s just a great guy.”

This year, Plainville opens at Smith Center.

“That’s exactly what we called it last year was the gauntlet,” Stephenson said. “We even talked about what people and teams might have a chip on their shoulders, and I told them at weights one of the teams that will have the biggest chip on their shoulders after last year will be that first team that we play — Smith Center — because we beat them the very first game of the year and then at sub-state. They’re going to be hungry and ready to go Game 1. It will be a challenge to start the season.”

Then the Cardinals hit the road against Norton, one of the top teams in Class 3A. Plainville beat the Bluejays 20-14 a year ago. Norton went 7-4, ending its season in the second round of playoffs, but returns this year with senior quarterback Jace Ruder — a University of North Carolina signee.

In Week 3, Plainville finally gets a home game, albeit against another 3A stalwart in Phillipsburg.

The Panthers went 11-1 last year before losing to Hesston in a third-round playoff battle by 12 points. The Swathers finished as state runner-up to Rossville, losing in overtime.

“That’s why I kinda like playing those three games first,” Stephenson said. “They set the standard to where it needs to be for the rest of the season. They make us better. They all count, but there’s really only one that counts that is 2A. The rest are 3A.”

Stephenson is now in his third year at the helm in Plainville. He’s helped revitalize a program that was successful decades ago.

“Coming in my very first year, I don’t know how much we believed in ourselves,” he said. “We seemed like we were kinda beat down and almost used to losing to Smith Center, Norton, Phillipsburg. I think that first year when we learned how to put some points on the board, it gave us some hope to carry into the next year. So when we did, especially when we won our first two games against Smith Center and Norton, I think everybody’s eyes lit up and were like, ‘Holy cow. We can beat anybody.’ That kinda gave us the confidence that was missing for several years here.”

The first three games this year won’t be a cakewalk, and the Cardinals won’t be surprising anyone along the way after last year.

“It really lets us know exactly where we are, and I like that,” said senior Hayden Gillum, who is beginning to get looks from NCAA Division I schools. “I like playing good competition, and it sets us up for the rest of the season. We’ll know how we come out after those games. It gives us a real look at it.”

While Plainville lost numerous key players from last year, the Cardinals also got some younger players experience in a successful setting.

One of those is sophomore Jared Casey.

“It’s definitely going to be hard,” Casey said about the early schedule. “But last year we started 2-1 against those big three powerhouses of the MCL. We just have to go out there and give it our all.”

Plainville might have been the surprise team of the MCL last fall. But this year, Stephenson knows a lot of teams will be gunning for them.

“That comes with those expectations,” he said. “Then you start winning those games, and everybody in town’s expectations go up to. That’s what makes it fun. I wanted to take a program and try to take it and build it into something. I think that’s what every coach wants to do. Like I told them, that’s one good year. One good year doesn’t make me a good coach. One good year doesn’t make us a great program. That’s just one good year. You have to do that several years in a row.”