BURLINGAME — When graduation claims three players who earned first-team All-Eight-Man Division I honors at some point in their career, including two-time pick and four-year starter Tristan Lee, an eight-man program — in this case, Burlingame — might expect to see a drop-off.
That's the sentiment Bearcat coach Jeff Slater knew was out there. Burlingame has posted three straight 11-1 seasons, but losing a big and talented senior class simply had to take its toll.
"We know statewide and area-wide people looked at us graduating a big senior class and thought maybe we weren't going to have as good of a season," Slater said. "So our goal was to challenge these kids. Our motto this year was 'Not Done.'"
The Bearcats have risen to their coach's challenge in a big way. Heading into Friday night's Lyon County League showdown with 6-0 Madison, Burlingame is working on its fourth straight undefeated regular season. The Bearcats are also 6-0, extending their regular-season winning streak to 33 straight games.
While some might be surprised, Slater isn't. The program is right where he hoped it would be when he took over in 2014.
"As far as building a program and a culture, I think we're at a stage where now we're maintaining," Slater said. "It's not so much building, but maintaining the culture and expectations.
"With the three core pieces we had back I thought we could put ourselves in this situation. ... We just needed to try to become the best team we could be by Week 9, and I thought if we stayed the course and stayed healthy, we could be a tough out for anybody in the playoffs. Here we are 6-0."
The three core pieces Slater mentioned are a trio of Bearcat seniors who have played a big part in Burlingame's recent run of success. Tailback Seth Greenwood emerged as a big-time backfield threat midway through last season and this year has run for 811 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Senior quarterback Montana Giffin filled in as the Bearcat starter when former All-Eight-Man I pick Dalton Sporing went down twice with ACL injuries and this year has completed 33 of 70 passes for 670 yards and 11 touchdowns while also running for 208 yards and nine scores. Senior lineman Keller Snesrud has been a fixture up front and is the team's unquestioned vocal leader.
The question facing Slater heading into the season was how the pieces around that trio would fall into place. Thus far, they have, particularly up front where juniors Phillip Kidwell and Colton Hill have stepped in to fill some major holes left by the loss of Lee and others.
Slater acknowledges a favorable early schedule allowed Burlingame's new starters to ease their way into their new roles with four of the first five wins coming against teams that are winless or have just one win so far. Last week, however, the Bearcats faced their first true test, going on the road to face explosive Maranatha. Burlingame passed with a hard-fought 54-42 victory.
Greenwood ran for 134 yards and two touchdowns and had a big 45-yard interception return for a score in the fourth quarter that all but clinched the victory. Giffin added three rushing touchdowns.
"I think that win last week was really what it took for some of these kids on this team to see our potential," Slater said. "They knew the schedule and what it was the first five games. To go on the road, that's what you have to do to win in the playoffs. I think it can go a long ways for our team."
Madison will offer a different kind of test for the Bearcats. A powerhouse after making the move to eight-man under Fred McClain, winning state titles in 2010 and 2011, the Bulldogs had fallen on tough times since McClain retired following the 2014 season.
Madison went 2-7 in 2015 before the program hired Alex McMillian the following season. After going 3-6 in his first year, the Bulldogs posted a 5-4 mark last year before this year's breakthrough season.
For McMillian, it was all about re-establishing the culture McClain had built.
"I knew when I got here they had very good tradition, but it wasn't where it used to be," he said. "I think we kind of lost our spark. Being an eight-man school you can go through spurts with talent and numbers. I think it took some time, but we're back to being competitive and back to Madison football.
"I don't think a lot of people thought we would be 6-0 and where we are today. That's just kudos to the kids and how hard they've worked in the weight room. They've come a long ways in learning how to compete again. The kids didn't know how to win and were almost expecting to lose. I knew we had the capability of doing it, it was just a matter of when it was going to happen."
Madison's turnaround has been based on toughness, in particular defensively. The Bulldogs began the season with three straight shutouts, including an impressive 20-0 win over a one-loss Waverly team, and for the season have given up just 48 points.
Madison has been extremely good against the run, allowing just 25 yards per game on the ground and only two rushing touchdowns. The pass defense has also been solid with Austin Watts logging six interceptions and Nasun Wasson five.
"Our defense has been very good," McMillian said. "They've come alive and our defense involves a lot of trusting reads and trusting teammates and when you're all on the same page, it works pretty well. It's taken a couple years, but we've gotten there and great things have happened."
Offensively, no Bulldog has more than 400 yards individually, Wasson leading the way with 359 yards and 12 touchdowns. But six backs have at least 125 yards and have scored at least three touchdowns with Ryan Wolgram (344 yards, 3 TDs), Colton Fife (273 yards, 5 TDs) and Hunter Engle (263 yards, 4 TDs) sharing the load.
"I've got five or six guys that can run the ball that have some speed and some power and can do a little bit of everything," McMillian said. "We're just trying to put the ball in the right hands at the right time. It's hard to key when you have five or six guys that can run the ball effectively."
Madison was the last team to beat Burlingame in the regular season, blowing out the Bearcats 54-8 in the 2014 season finale. The two schools haven't played since 2015 and last year each went undefeated in league play, sharing the title.
"That didn't set too well with our kids because we felt we were the better team," Slater said. "This year, we get to handle it on the field. There won't be a shared title this year.
"They are a hungry, hungry football team. They look confident and look like they're playing with a chip on their shoulder. ... Their confidence is through the roof and they're going to try and bully you. They'll be the most physical team we play this year."
Prediction: Burlingame over Madison