LAUREL - Usually if Bob Ames says that his team "gets along really well," it's best to take it as just another Ames-ism - a way for him to avoid talking about how he really feels about his team.
But not in 2012.
"I'm not being facetious," Ames said. "These guys really like being around each other. I think team bonding and leadership always seem to be second to talent and physicality, but not with this group. I'd rather have good leaders, good kids, good citizens and be successful with those kinds of kids. We took a very ordinary group of guys in 2006 - of course Blaine and Mount Baker moved out of our classification that year - and won a state championship. We were very ordinary and regular, but they played hard for each other and hung out with each other, and that made a big difference."
Blaine and Mount Baker are back in Meridian's classification this year, and evidently, so are the good feelings in black and gold.
And that could go a long way toward deciding just how good the Trojans can be this season, as they attempt to qualify for the state playoffs for the 15th time in 18 years.
For the second straight year, Meridian had some pretty heavy losses to graduation, but quarterback Max McGuinn was not among them. He is back, bigger and stronger and more comfortable with what Meridian is doing on offense.
His top two targets figure to be seniors Relijah McMillen and Drake VanderYacht, who each saw some time last year.
John Murphy is gone, but a couple of new running backs are ready to step in, including junior Letrez Jones, who transferred in after suffering a lacrosse injury a few years ago, and senior Junior Castro, who rushed for 212 yards and two TDs in 2011.
"We have some little Pacmen guys," Ames said. "Atari has a trademark on all our running backs. But they will compete hard."
Experience up front is a bit of a concern, with Neal Tilbury the only senior in the bunch.
"You look over there and we're just juniors, sophomores, freshmen," Ames said. "Neal will do a good job though. He'll help the other guys up when they get knocked down."
One guy sure to do more knocking down than getting knocked down is returning junior starter Spencer Blackburn, whom even Ames will lump praise on - in his own way.
"Spencer's definitely a keeper," Ames said. "He's pretty quick and he's about middling size - what is he, about 175 pounds, 5-11, 5-10-ish? He plays smart, but man, he is just a puppy."
Blackburn also should be a force up front on defense alongside fellow junior Tucker Garcia, whom Ames said has had a good camp.
Tilbury should shine at linebacker, while the secondary is full of more of Ames' "Pacmen types" with McGuinn, VanderYacht, Jones and Trevin Todd leading the way.
"There are a lot of unknowns this year," Ames said. "We don't know, for example, what the first four games are going to bring. We don't know how healthy we're going to be. Injuries at our level, except for Blaine, which has like 800 kids, really impact how you finish. ... He who has the most standing will probably do OK."
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH
McGuinn passed for 2,060 yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior. The passing game will likely be even more important this year with a younger line and the graduation of Meridian's top running back.
Nicknamed "Helmet" by Ames for the way his face sits so far back in his helmet, just like Dark Helmet in "Spaceballs,", McMillen brings speed, athleticism, experience and "The Schwartz" to Meridian's receivers and secondary.
Tilbury will be in the middle of Meridian's defense, and he and Spencer Blackburn will anchor and lead the Trojans' newcomers on the offensive line.
THREE KEYS TO THE SEASON
1. Stick together
Ames likes the camaraderie that he sees in his team, and that could play a big role in helping the Trojans through any growing pains in what figures to be a difficult NWC 1A race.
2. Establish a running game
The graduation of John Murphy obviously hurts, but the Trojans need one or more of Ames' "Pacmen-types" to step up and be big contributor this year.
3. Just like old times
With old WCL rivals Blaine and Mount Baker dropping down and expected to be strong this year, the Trojans must re-establish themselves as a team to beat in the NWC 1A ranks.
Aug. 31 Burlington-Edison 7 p.m.
Sept. 7 at Lakewood 7 p.m.
Sept. 14 Lord Tweedsmuir (B.C.) 7 p.m.
Sept. 21 Sehome 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 Friday Harbor* 6 p.m.
Oct. 5 at Nooksack Valley* 7 p.m.
Oct. 12 at Blaine* 7 p.m.
Oct. 19 Lynden Christian* 7 p.m.
Oct. 26 at Mount Baker* 7 p.m.
*NWC 1A game
2011 RESULTS (8-3, 4-1 NWC, 5-1 NWC 1A)
Mount Baker W 19-6
Sequim L 29-22
at Friday Harbor* W 50-27
Lynden Christian* W 52-6
Nooksack Valley* L 31-21
Friday Harbor* W 42-7
at Lynden Christian* W 47-0
at Nooksack Valley* W 48-13
CLASS 1A NORTHWEST DISTRICT PLAYOFFS
at Coupeville W 47-0
CLASS 1A TRI-DISTRICT PLAYOFFS
at Charles Wright W 42-27
CLASS 1A STATE PLAYOFFS
at Toledo L 24-21
*NWC 1A game
2011 STATS LEADERS
RUSHING Att. Yards Avg. TD
John Murphy 221 1,644 7.4 20
Casey Smith 22 269 12.2 4
Max McGuinn* 77 244 3.2 9
PASSING Cmp. Att. Yards TD Int.
Max McGuinn* 137 244 2,060 17 12
RECEIVING Rec. Yards Avg. TD
Casey Smith 38 614 16.2 2
Chase Heslep 29 452 15.6 7
Relijah McMillen* 19 384 20.2 3
No. Player Yr. Ht. Wt.
1 Letrez Jones Jr. 5-5 140
7 Evan Childs Sr. 5-7 140
10 Kyle Linderman Jr. 5-9 145
11 Tanner Tutterrow So. 5-9 140
15 Max McGuinn Sr. 5-10 160
16 Junior Castro Sr. 5-6 140
17 Jamison Hodge Jr. 5-9 170
18 Trevin Todd Sr. 5-4 130
19 Alex Yelfimov Sr. 5-7 150
20 Kevin Castro So. 5-5 135
24 Sam Chambers Jr. 5-9 150
25 Drake VanderYacht Sr. 5-6 140
27 Isaiah Thompson So. 5-8 150
28 Cody Bachman So. 5-6 140
29 Daljit Nagra So. 5-6 140
32 Relijah McMillen Sr. 5-7 135
33 Robby Gray Sr. 5-6 140
35 Jeremy Brockmann Sr. 5-11 185
37 Casey Bromet Sr. 5-7 140
39 Adam Mydland So. 5-8 160
40 Erick Price So. 5-6 135
43 Harjaap Atwal So. 5-10 150
49 Chad Richter Jr. 6-0 160
50 Tucker Garcia Jr. 5-7 185
51 Kaleb Heezen Jr. 5-10 170
55 Jacob Dennis Jr. 6-0 175
57 Brandon Johnson So. 5-7 150
58 Joey Bell Jr. 5-9 155
65 Tyler Pagnossin So. 5-5 150
66 Edvard Yelfimov Jr. 5-8 170
72 Neal Tilbury Sr. 5-10 175
76 Spencer Blackburn Jr. 6-0 185
77 Treven Elgersma So. 5-5 155
79 Blake Carson So. 5-9 180
83 Kyle Young So. 6-0 150
85 Suki Virk So. 5-5 140
86 Nick Miller So. 6-0 150
Reach DAVID RASBACH at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2271.