HOWARD — West Elk had been a dominant team in the South Central Border League for the past few years. In fact, the Patriots were so dominant on the field that they rarely lost a regular-season game … winning 45 games in a stretch of 49 outings.

That’s what made last year’s 1-8 campaign so hard to swallow for head coach Chris Haag and his program. WEHS opened the season with a victory at Marmaton Valley but lost its final eight games of the season.

Now it’s a new season and a new attitude for the Patriots, who are quickly trying to erase those memories from a year ago.

“Last year was a struggle in many ways,” Haag said. “We were devastated with injuries, and it felt like we had a new obstacle to overcome each week. However, many of our younger players received some valuable experience, and that will only help us as we head into this season.”

Haag enters his 19th season on the Patriot sideline and is the all-time winningest coach in school history with a record of 89-84 during his tenure. He has led West Elk to three undefeated regular seasons over the past six seasons, including a trip to the sectional round of the playoffs and a 10-1 mark just two seasons ago.

Yet, this year’s Patriot squad had some soul searching to do during the offseason and enters the 2019 campaign riding an eight-game losing streak — the longest such skid since dropping nine in a row between the 1998 and 1999 seasons.

Injuries devastated WEHS a year ago early on, and the team never could recover. But those injuries allowed underclassmen to step into some key roles and gain some valuable varsity experience.

West Elk has a total of 11 starters back this season, including five on offense and six on defense.

Offensively, the Patriots return a pair of starters in the backfield in senior Nic Moreno and sophomore Koleton Branch. At wide receiver will be senior Trenten Tindle, while senior Caleb Walker and sophomore Dylan Treloggen are back on the line for the Patriots.

On the defensive side, many of those same players will return — Moreno at linebacker, Treloggen and Walker on the line, Branch at line/linebacker, and Tindle at defensive back. Joining them will be at defensive back/linebacker will be junior Rocky Hanks.

“We lost some great players to graduation but have a lot of players returning that received a lot of playing time last season,” Haag said. “We have a good group of young players that will need to step up and compete for us at the varsity level. We will need to stay healthy if we want to compete for a district championship and a shot at the playoffs.”

West Elk once again kicks off the season against Marmaton Valley — this time at home. That is the first of back-to-back home games to open the season, which will include a Sept. 13 date with South Central Border League foe Udall. After that comes a Sept. 20 visit to perennial state power St. Paul.

The Eight Man I-District 1 slate opens on Sept. 27 at Central of Burden before making the trip to Oswego on Oct. 4. Two of the final three district games will be at home, including Cedar Vale/Dexter on Oct. 11 and rival Sedan in the regular-season finale on Oct. 25. The Patriots will also travel to Flinthills on Oct. 18.