It is easy to see New Berlin Eisenhower is losing the offensive and defensive players of the year in the Woodland West and a three-year starting quarterback and assume the Lions will take a step back in 2016.
But while Jordan Canady, Jake Rastas and Sam Carey have graduated, Eisenhower returns seven starters on each side of the ball and 22 letterwinners from an 8-2 team that won a share of the Woodland West championship and returned the program to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
"I probably don't have as many questions about that aspect of it as many on the outside do," Eisenhower coach Matt Kern said. "Part of that is the perception of losing players of the year on both sides of the ball and losing a three-year starting quarterback. I'm OK with that perception. I feel pretty good about the guys we will have filling those spots. The talent that we have is pretty well-rounded on both sides of the ball."
After getting a taste of playoff football, the Lions are hungry to get back and avenge a Level 1 loss to Wisconsin Lutheran in the Division 3 playoffs.
"Coming off last season at 8-2, we'd like to go further into the playoffs and possibly win the state championship," senior Max Maier said. "We have big goals. We know what we are capable of doing.
"We were building our confidence up the past two years. Now it is there. Now we need to finish and get to that next step."
On offense, the Lions will have to replace the versatile Canady, who ran for 595 yards and caught 21 passes for 447 yards. Eisenhower returns two first-team All Woodland West offensive linemen in seniors Mike Keller and Zack Hansen. Also back is leading rusher Joey Scaffidi, who ran for 641 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior.
With Canady and Rastas gone, junior Stephen Halusan (10 catches, 155 yards) and senior Sullivan Kulju (eight catches, 149 yards) are Eisenhower's returning leading receivers.
The past two seasons, Kern designed his offense around the skill set of Carey. To find Carey's replacement at quarterback, Eisenhower must first figure out what type of player it wants under center.
"That's high on the list of positions we need to figure out," Kern said. "Now that we are starting over again at this position it has created conceptional conversations about what we want to be as a team. Do we want to be more of a throwing and passing team? Or do we want our quarterback to be a running threat?"
Eisenhower will need to plug holes in its secondary with the graduation of Canady and Dakota Grzesk. Senior Bryce Wesling intercepted four passes in 2015. The defensive line will be led by senior interior lineman Adam Lancaster (six tackles for loss) and sophomore Mark Shields (five sacks).
Rastas was the Woodland West defensive player of the year, but Eisenhower returns plenty of talent at linebacker. Maier recorded 61 tackles as a junior, junior Jake Belongia (39 tackles) was honorable-mention All Conference as a sophomore, and Scaffidi (37 tackles) was a first-team pick at outside linebacker.
"We had a really talented JV team," Kern said. "With the core of that group being juniors, I think we have a really solid junior and senior class back to back. We have a pretty rare amount of depth at certain positions. Like everybody else, we have some things we have to figure out and questions we have to have answered, but I feel pretty good at this stage."
Eisenhower should be strong on special teams, as Wesling was first-team All Woodland West as a punter and honorable mention as a kicker last season.
Player to watch: Joey Scaffidi, RB/LB
Fans of Eisenhower are well aware of Scaffidi's athletic prowess, as he's a four-sport standout for the Lions. Scaffidi will once again be the Lions' starting running back and will be one of the better linebackers in the Woodland West.
Keep an eye on: While the Lions have a solid core returning on defense, Eisenhower needs to three important offensive skill position players. How Eisenhower fills the production void of Canady, Carey and Rastas could determine the path of its season.
We say: Eisenhower should find itself in the mix for another Woodland West title. Greendale remains the league favorite, while Pewaukee and Wauwatosa West will also be threats. After making the playoffs in 2015, the Lions have expectations to win in the postseason this season.
"Our team knows we can only go up," Scaffidi said. "We don't want to have a letdown year."
First team: Mike Keller (OL), Zack Hansen (OL), Joey Scaffidi (RB, LB), Adam Lancaster (IL), Bryce Wesling (K)
Honorable mention: Mark Shields (DE), Bryce Wesling (P), Jake Belongia (LB)
First-team losses: Jordan Canady (WR, DB), Jake Rastas (TE, LB), Sam Carey (QB), Dakota Grzesk (DB)
Coach: Matt Kern (third season, 12-7 overall)
Outcome: Lost in Level 1 to Wisconsin Lutheran, 18-7
Last year (home in bold)
Plymouth W 31-7
Mauston W 35-0
Greendale L 34-14
Wauwatosa West W 21-14
Pius XI Catholic W 47-14
New Berlin West L 42-19
Pewaukee W 34-0
Greenfield W 30-20
Wisconsin Lutheran L 18-7
Aug. 19 Plymouth
Aug. 26 West Bend East
Sept. 2 Wauwatosa West
Sept. 9 Pius XI Catholic
Sept. 16 New Berlin West
Sept. 23 Pewaukee
Sept. 30 Greendale
Oct. 7 Woodland Crossover
Oct. 14 Woodland Crossover