As Celina head football coach Bill Elliott put it, the Bobcats got a taste last season.
Celina got to experience the rigors of a long season, the feeling of practicing into December, the elation of amassing the program's deepest playoff run since 2015, and the heartbreak of falling just two wins short of their ultimate goal.
Elliott said his team's Class 4A Division II state semifinal loss to Gilmer was a motivator throughout the team's offseason, leading all the way up to the start of fall practices on Monday.
"I feel like our kids entered this year feeling like they've got to finish something," he said. "They got that taste of getting all the way to that semifinal game and playing deep into the season. Now they know they want to finish something. They want to get to AT&T Stadium and get something done there. It has fueled them all spring, summer and into fall camp."
That continued Thursday as the Bobcats suited up in shoulder pads and shorts. Full-contact practices won't be permitted by the UIL until Saturday, with Celina spending portions of Thursday's running plays opposite a defensive formation of trash cans.
"Against the trash cans, we're 100%," Elliott joked. "We need to get some live competition to see where we are there and figure a few more things out."
Celina has been conducting morning and early afternoon sessions during its first week of practice. The mornings are treated more like a traditional practice, and the Bobcats conduct a walkthrough in the afternoons — complete with meetings and work in the weight room.
"You can tell the kids have worked hard all summer. They're in shape, their conditioning is at a good level right now, and a lot of them have improved their strength and size," Elliott said. "Today was the first day we really got after it a bit, going against some bodies. It looked good and felt good, but it'll be good on Saturday to get some full-speed contact going to see where we are."
It's also a chance for continued evaluation, as Celina plugs hole left from the graduation of a talent-rich senior class. That's particularly the case up front on the offensive line, where only senior Hamish Mpofu returns as a three-year starter.
With Mpofu as the anchor, Elliott said the Bobcats have no shortage of viable candidates for filling out the rest of the line. He mentioned senior Logan Allen, junior Russell Freeman, junior Tyler Weeks, senior Garrett McMillan and sophomore Zadyn Dimas as names in the mix to round out Celina's offensive line.
"We've got a good two-deep up front. It's just a matter of finding that right mix and where those pieces need to be," Elliott said. "We're rotating guys around in a lot of different spots, but we like the options there and feel good about what we have."
However the line settles, that unit will block for an experienced backfield that includes senior quarterback Noah Bentley and senior running backs Gabe Gayton, Troy Peterson and Will Taylor. That group contributed to an offense that averaged more than 42 points per game.
Defensively, one of the focal points has been replacing two all-state linebackers in Zach Veverka and Hunter Neely. Sophomore Cooper Farrow and senior Bryson Smith have emerged as candidates to fill those voids as part of a unit that returns experience up front with seniors Trae Hollins and Jacob Vincent at defensive end and in the secondary with juniors Jamisen Driver and Collin McKiddy.
But while expectations remain unchanged for one of the state's most decorated high school football programs, the landscape around Celina has undergone quite the shift since the Bobcats closed out their 2021 campaign.
The high school's escalating enrollment shuffled the Bobcats back into 4A Division I for the next two school years, and with that change comes a district chalked in new faces. Celina will compete in 7-4A Div. I alongside Dallas ISD programs Carter, Wilmer-Hutchins, Pinkston, North Dallas, plus Carrollton Ranchview and first-year program Frisco Panther Creek.
"There are some schools we haven't ever played before and others we haven't played in forever like the DISD schools," Elliott said. "It's exciting, though. It's always fun playing new people."
Despite the changes, Celina enters the season ranked among the best in the classification, tabbed No. 5 in the state per Dave Campbell's Texas Football. The Bobcats open Aug. 26 on the road against Paris, ranked No. 19, at 7:30 p.m.