ROSSVILLE, Ga. (WRCB) -- There's rarely a day that goes by that Mark Mariakis is not asked about last season.
Ridgeland's remarkable run to the Georgia Dome and a state runner-up finish was a dream come true for most Panther players and likely the highlight of their young lives.
But nine months later, Mariakis and his team are doing their best to pretend it never happened.
"They're great memories and they'll be with us forever, but does it impact this season? Not at all," Mariakis said. "There are a lot of lessons we learned along the way and things we can take from the experience, but when we play Calhoun in two weeks they won't care about what we did last year.
"It's a brand new year."
And that brings with it a brand new team.
Gone are big names like Vonn Bell and Darrell Bridges, along with at least five other starters on each side of the ball.
"We have a lot of new names and faces," Mariakis said. "We definitely don't look the same lineup-wise and bodies-wise. We don't look the same as we did last year at all."
That makes it key for the few players with experience to assume larger leadership roles.
Senior Noah Cooper is the lone returning running back in last year's four horsemen attack, while tight end Jermaine Conyers, safety Dillon Peterman and linebacker Trey Stubbs make up the majority of Ridgeland's other returning experience.
"We have a lot of young kids playing, but they have talent," Cooper said. "We just need them to step up and play large roles and we all need to come together as a family."
Mariakis hopes adversity will help forge that unity as the team endures some growing pains over the season's first few weeks.
However, last year's success has not only placed a target on the Panthers' backs for opponents, but it's also raised the expectations for a passionate fan base that has grown used to winning.
Raising that bar in Rossville has been an extremely rewarding experience for Mariakis and his team, but now comes the challenge of maintaining it.
"It took me personally 29 years to get there, and we felt blessed to do it, but now you have people expecting to get there every year," Mariakis said. "It makes you truly appreciate the work of the teams that have done it, because it's an amazing feat.
"Luckily, once you have finally tasted it, it only makes you hungrier to get back. These kids are working with that hunger and hopefully they'll have a chance to do that."
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