The Santa Fe High football program has come a long way since finishing the 2017 season with a lone win in 10 attempts. That much was clear last season, when the Raiders concluded the regular season with a 5-5 mark, good enough to clinch a spot in the Class 4A playoffs.

But head coach Dock Pollard isn’t satisfied with a repeat of 2018 — after running to postseason play, the team’s improvement is just commencing.

“Last year was a stepping stone for us. The season before last we were 1-9, couldn’t score and couldn’t stop anybody from scoring. And our kids bought into what we were trying to do,” said Pollard, a former defensive back at the University of Florida under coach Steve Spurrier. “We doubled our offensive output and cut in half the amount of points we were giving up. This year, our expectations are much higher.”

The resulting buy-in from players in the eight months since concluding the 2018 campaign has been noticeable, Pollard said. Rather than depart Santa Fe for pastures that may appear greener, the Raiders committed to improving in the offseason. The result? A revitalized program returning 19 starters from last season’s team.

“We were averaging about 40 kids at each workout. And in today’s world of transferring, our kids stayed. Our kids bought in, they’re working hard and pushing each other,” he said. “We had some great momentum going into the summer, through the summer and I think it’s going to carry into the season. It’s been a win-win for us.”

Most important position battles: It’s about building depth on both sides of the line of scrimmage for the Raiders. With many upperclassmen returning to the program, Pollard and Co. are looking for many seldom-used players to take a leap in 2019. Santa Fe will utilize much of preseason camp developing the reserve offensive and defensive linemen, as well as looking for several inexperienced linebackers to prepare to take over once senior linebacker/fullback Darrius Powell graduates after the season.

Key returning starters: The Raiders are looking for across-the-board improvements from the incumbents while also building depth. Senior quarterback Jeremiah Crews returns to lead the team’s offense, while Powell will captain the defense. Senior defensive lineman Jamal Curtis gives Santa Fe a physical presence on the line capable of setting the edge, while junior wide receiver Balin Strickland will help lead the Raiders’ pass-catching unit. And 6-foot-7, 315-pound left tackle Jackson Powell is a daunting figure charged with protecting Curtis’ blindside.

Key newcomers: With a considerable amount of talent returning, don’t expect fresh faces to lead the Raiders to the top in 2019. “We’ve pretty much got our guys. We’ve got some freshmen coming in, but I don’t know if they’ll contribute this year,” Pollard said. “We have a senior and junior class, there’s 15 and 15 of those guys who are like our regulars. We have some sophomores sprinkled in with that, and that will be our core nucleus of guys.”

Looming camp question: After a four-win uptick in 2018, Pollard anticipates the team’s offense taking a leap forward, while the nine returning starters on defense give Santa Fe an experienced line-up to lean on. The Raiders will look to that experienced group to show more poise, and a better understanding of what it means to close out games, too.

“Last year we won five and we were in two more that we could have won, but we lost those games because we didn’t quite know how to win,” Pollard said. “I think that they’ve learned and are more aware of what it takes to win.”