FLORETTE — Chuckling slightly, Ricky Allen shrugged and shook his head — with a mischievous grin.
For the Brewer High girls basketball coach, an old habit did not change. Surprisingly the play button was never pressed on the game film from his team's final game last season.
But Allen's pupils?
"Oh yeah, I've watched it," Brewer center Riley Northway said. "I've watched it over, and over and over — probably a thousand times. I couldn't help myself. A lot us couldn't."
Understandable — and who can blame them? Brewer's final game last season was easily the most important win in program history — providing the school's lone state title.
Now Brewer finds itself in a new position. Gone is the role of hunter. As the defending Class 5A state champions — with seven returning players — the Patriots enter basketball season as the hunted.
"That's set in, and it's exciting," Allen said. "It's exciting to have high expectations. It's exciting for these kids to move that mark up and try to achieve it again. I know the kids are excited about the new challenges ahead."
The journey already has begun — but just briefly.
Because several of Brewer's players were on the volleyball team, which advanced to the Class 5A semifinals, the Patriots were not able to hold a complete practice until last week. But even though practice time has been limited, Allen feels good about his team's progress heading into the season.
And the new season's debut is coming up fast.
Brewer's girls open the season Thursday at Cullman. The boys open Tuesday at rival Priceville, but there will not be a girls game because the two schools could not agree on a scheduled game.
Rheagan Harvel said the opener can't get here soon enough.
"There was so much excitement last season, and then everything came to a screeching halt," the senior point guard said. "Once you go from something that is so exciting, and all of your adrenaline has peaked, and then the next day it's over. It's a weird feeling.
"The way we felt last year after winning (a state title), you never want those emotions to end, and you want to do everything possible to make sure you experience that feeling again. Once you've achieved that, you can't wait until you step into your uniform again."
With so many players returning, Brewer is likely to open on the Alabama Sports Writers Association's girls prep basketball poll as Class 5A's top-ranked team.
Not that any of the current Patriots care.
For the players, things like rankings and outside perception are low on the Totem pole — a mindset that has been ingrained in the players since their first years with the program.
"Coach Allen has been saying since my freshman year that every team is a new team," Harvel said. "Our goals are always the same, but what makes our team unique is that we never concern ourselves with what happened last year. This is a new season and a new team. That's the way you have to approach things."
"With our team, the way we view our opponents and the way we approach the game, that never changes," she said. "For us, the only thing we worry about is how we execute, how we practice and what we need to do to be a better team.
"Last season is in the past. In our minds, it never happened. We're moving forward and trying to achieve a new set of goals."
Saying all the right things, indeed.
That's not surprising. This is a veteran team loaded with talented, basketball-savvy players.
Northway, 6-foot-1 center, was a first-team all-state selection last season as a sophomore. She dominated in the postseason, wowing those in attendance as she piled up points and rebounds with an energetic and intense brand of basketball.
It was a special season for Northway — she averaged 16.7 points and 8.1 rebounds — but Allen believes that was merely the beginning.
"I think people are going to be surprised at Riley," Allen said. "She's so much faster and more mobile. Her desire hasn't changed. That's always been there. But I think she could end up having an even better season."
And that's only one piece of the puzzle. This isn't a star-driven team.
It's powered by stars — emphasis on plural.
Harvel is the spark that makes Brewer go. She averaged 8.8 points and 5.6 assists per game last season as a junior.
Savana Flack and Cheyenne McLemore also played key roles last season for the Patriots.
"These kids have been together for a while and know what to expect," Allen said. "That's a special thing. Not every team has an opportunity to have a group of kids like this. You've got coaches on the floor — several players who aren't afraid to express their thoughts. We know they're smart. We know they're intuitive. We know to trust them.
"Now, they're going to be tested. We've got a lot of tough opponents on the schedule. It's all a process. Just like last year, they've got to learn to be a team. But winning is a habit. You don't turn it on, and you don't turn it off. These kids are winners in everything they do."
As for the game film from the state title game?
Allen never watches film from the season's final game — a trend that could be changing soon.
"I haven't watched, yet," he said with a chuckle.
"I aim to. I want to. I never have watched the last game. That's a hard cycle to break, but maybe on a special occasion, like the one-year anniversary, maybe then I'll make an exception."
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