A senior-laden team a year ago, Hays High was competitive all season long and showed strides, despite finishing 3-6.

Now, the Indians will rely on several underclassmen to take the next step forward.

“We graduated a lot of age, which came with a lot of experience,” Hays High second-year head coach Tony Crough said. “Now we’re just really young, but we feel like we’re just as good or better at a lot of spots. Just don’t have experience. We’re looking for guys to act like they’re 18, but they might only be 15. It’s going to come, but it will take some time.”

The Indians notched wins over Liberal (21-20), Wichita South (53-20) and Buhler (41-21) last year. They dropped single-digit decisions against Great Bend (15-7), Garden City (28-21) and Dodge City (34-33).

“We’ve got to learn how to finish ballgames,” Crough said. “I think a lot of the reason we were in so many games last year is because we had so many kids that had experience on Friday nights. We had a big senior class of big, strong kids.

"Didn’t know how to win last year. This year we’ve got to learn how to win, but it’s going to be different because now we’ve got sophomore, juniors and freshmen that have won, and we’ve got a senior class that is hungry to win. Expectations are to win now; we’ve got kids that have done it, just not at the varsity level.”

The Indians return four starters on offense — senior running back Hayden Brown, senior offensive linemen Luke Fletcher and Brock Lummus and senior receiver Dylan Ruder. Six starters are back on defense — junior defensive end Trey Adams, sophomore defensive lineman Gavin Nutting, sophomore linebacker Gavin Meyers, and senior defensive backs Taivian Creamer and Drake Summers and sophomore DB Roy Moroni.

“We’ve got a strong senior class. We’re not mighty in numbers (for upperclassmen) but we’re mighty in the guys we’re going to throw out there," Crough said. "We’ve got a good 10 or 12 seniors who are going to lead us. We’re just going to have a bunch of sophomores that are going to be on the field. That’s our concern. They look like seniors, but they still don’t have a bunch of reps on Friday nights.”

The Indians, who are looking for their first winning season since 2014, graduated All-Western Athletic Conference quarterback Palmer Hutchison. Sophomore Dylan Dreiling is expected to be Hays' starting QB.

“He’s a gamer,” Crough said. “The kid's a heck of a athlete. He’s played sports at a really high level. He’s just super savvy, kind of a quiet leader. He works as hard as anybody we have out here. His athleticism is going to be as good as anybody around.

“He throws a nice ball. He’s still learning how to play quarterback. I believe this is his third year, maybe fourth, playing football. He’s learning how to play football and quarterback, but we’ve sure got a heck of an athlete back there.”

On defense, Crough likes his team's speed and athleticism.

“By the end of the year, we started finding our niche as a defense,” Crough said of last year's team. “But we’re going to look different. We’re not near as big, but, man, we’re fast. We’ve got some good athletes at every level. We’re going to have some young athletes out there, but we can fly.”

The Indians open the season Sept. 6 against Junction City at Lewis Field Stadium.