At the heart of this year's Golden Valley Bulldogs are four qualities any football team would love to possess: Size, strength, athleticism and attitude.
Blend in leadership, character and selflessness, and that describes senior offensive linemen Carlos Bejarno, Dion Shelton, Mark Rodriquez and Moses Perez.
All are second-year starters who have made tremendous improvements during the offseason, but still have plenty of work to do if they want to find themselves back in the hunt for a league title in 2012.
"We've put a lot of emphasis on our offensive line, because we feel that it's an area where programs can be made offensively," coach Erich Smith said. "A good line can make any offense really go."
And that's exactly what the Bulldogs did last season, riding at times some ridiculous displays of offense, including a 506-yard, three-touchdown passing performance from quarterback Alexander Soto during the team's 59-28 loss to Visalia-Mount Whitney in the first round of the Division III section playoffs.
It was the third consecutive season the Bulldogs have tasted the agony of playoff defeat.
Putting up some serious postseason stats is always a sign of good things to come. You have to be able to move the ball in order to score points, and having a top-notch offensive line is paramount.
"The whole line has improved," Soto said. "Not only just as a primary-power blocking team, but they understand how to run-block and have really gotten their pass protection down."
That's something Soto, a senior, will rely heavily on if he wants to survive a 2012 campaign without graduated tailback Kwame Johnson, who rushed for 1,159 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago.
However, Smith has been creative and willing to adapt, moving defensive players into key offensive roles.
Like senior defensive end-turned-running back Michael Buckner, whose biggest challenge during camp this summer was switching from a defensive to offensive mindset.
"It's my first year back playing running back since my freshman year," said Buckner, who racked up a team-high 7.5 sacks in 2011. "But I am working hard at trying to get used to it."
And while the passing game might lack last season's flair without DeAndre Stallworth and Jordan Gruber, Soto will get some help from returning starting wide receivers Rafael Tapia and Demitic Fair, along with speedster Luis Matos, a Golden Valley track standout who reached the state championships in the 100-meter dash this spring.
Defensively, the Bulldogs return one key starter in each tier, and like the offense, the unit made some big plays at times last season. But Golden Valley also allowed an average of 37.7 points per game.
The Bulldogs will lean heavily on middle linebacker Brendan Rufus and cornerback Jessie Hodges as the team transitions from a 50-front to a 4-3 in hopes of shoring up a running defense that was a major weakness a year ago.
However, Soto says the team has learned plenty from last year.
"Little mistakes become big mistakes, especially in the postseason," he said. "It magnified us as a team, but I think it matured us, too."
Smith said that will go a long way in building on last season's accomplishments -- and disappointments.
"The story about the 2012 Bulldogs is unwritten," he said.
"We are in the process of defining ourselves as a team, and I think this season will be their journey of writing their legacy."