But once Ty Stevenson saw a total buy-in to an offseason program, the head coach of the Roughriders believed the scenario this weekend was possible.
"I think our kids did a great job in the offseason," Stevenson said. "After the season ended last year, I met with them all and put together a plan of what we were going to do and how we were going to try and work from that point until August to give us a team that could win as many games as we possibly could."
As a result, Western is off to a 6-1 start that includes a 4-0 record in the Firelands Conference. The 'Riders sit third in the Division VI Region 22 computer ratings, and have a huge showdown against state-ranked St. Paul (7-0, 4-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Whitney Field in Norwalk.
"To the kids credit, they did a great job to get here," Stevenson said. "They bought into what we asked them to do and they've done a great job this offseason and and into the camp practices. It's a credit to them — they've deserved what they've gotten so far and I'm really happy for them."
Stevenson, a South Central graduate who spent several years as an assistant at Colonel Crawford prior to arriving at Western, said the team's turnaround started in the weigh room.
"We had to lift. We had to commit ourselves to the room," he said. "Our families and kids had to commit to being in the weight room if they weren't in another sport, and they did that. Our community has been very supportive of getting in the weight room, and our boosters helped us get a couple new racks that built some excitement for our kids in the room.
"Obviously we had a great basketball season last winter, and our track team with some of the guys who played football also did well," Stevenson added. "I just think it all worked hand-in-hand, and they did a great job."
As a former player in the FC, Stevenson needed no introduction to St. Paul and longtime coach John Livengood (276-70) prior to taking over for Mike Stoll in Collins last year.
The Flyers — ranked No. 4 in the latest Div. VII Associated Press poll — have won seven straight league championships and 50 games in a row in the FC. They enter Saturday's game averaging 39.4 points and 323 yards per game while limiting opponents to 123.6 yards and just 3.7 points per game.
"Obviously their strength and speed are the two main things," Stevenson said. "The way that they are coached really well also stands out, and they get better each week. You look at the Plymouth game (34-8 win on Sept. 21) and they probably didn't play up to their St. Paul standards — and they fixed it. That's what they do."
Running backs Cam Caizzo (731 yards, 9 TDs) and Justin Butler (545 yards, 12 TDs) are the 1-2 punch for the Flyers. Quarterback Myron Stoll is 22-of-38 passing for 348 yards and 5 TDs while rushing for 219 yards and four touchdowns.
The Flyers are led by linebackers Will Stieber (70 tackles, two sacks, three fumble recoveries) and Butler (50 tackles, two sacks) on defense, while kicker Tyler Perkins is 37-of-39 on extra points and has a field goal (37 yards).
"They've had guys injured at various points, and they just plug guys in and make sure to continue to play the way that they play," Stevenson said of St. Paul. "And for the greater area, you can reach out about as far as you want in the state of Ohio, and that's what everyone who has ever faced them is going to say. They just play the game really hard and physical, and they force you to make mistakes."
Meanwhile, Western will enter Saturday averaging 31 points and 413 yards per game. They allow 132.9 yards and 20.2 points per game.
The 'Riders are led by running back Cody Benesh, who has 214 attempts for 1,538 yards and 21 TDs — both which lead the FC. Jude Muenz is 70-of-119 passing for 871 yards and 5 TDs at QB, with JJ Weisenberger catching 26 passes for 334 yards and 2 TDs.
On defense, Benesh leads the team in tackles (56), while Dalton Webb (34 tackles, six sacks) and Dayne Braden (34 tackles, five sacks) anchor the front.
Stevenson talked about the 'big game' atmosphere on Saturday that awaits his team. With the rest of the area teams playing on Friday, all eyes will be on the 'Riders and Flyers on Saturday.
"We talked about it and it's obviously a neat experience for our kids," he said. "It's what I had hoped for them in the offseason, that we would have a shot to be playing for something late in the year — and that opportunity is upon us. So it's neat for our kids, and especially for our basketball guys. it's not something they are unaware of or have never been in.
"Now, obviously for some of our guys it's new, but we try to talk about being even keel," Stevenson added. "We have to play hard every play, and every play is important. We have to wipe away the play before — whether it's positive or negative — and be ready to go on the next one."