There are two words Smiths Station baseball coach Mike Ferry doesn't want to hear on his field after last season.
The words "state championship," or any variation of the two, are banned from the clubhouse as the team tries to forget about its incredible run to a Class 7A title last year and focus on improving every day in 2016.
"We've decided not to talk about last year," Ferry said. "We've decided not to say those words. That was last year. Winning last year was great and something they'll never forget, but this is a new year and just because you did that last year doesn't mean we're changing our expectations or anything. We already set them high to begin with."
Even though Ferry doesn't want to talk about it, the team's accomplishments last year are worth repeating. The Panthers snuck into the playoffs after winning their area in a decisive Game 3 over Central. After dropping their first playoff game against Enterprise, they needed three games to advance to the quarterfinals. It took three games to top Auburn in that round, and then they swept both Fairhope and Thompson to clinch their first state championship in program history.
And while that was last year and this is this year, there is plenty of reason to think Smiths Station should be in contention again.
The Panthers return 12 seniors this year, seven of whom had significant playing time as a junior last year. Pitchers Max Newton and Blake Rivera are back, as are leaders like Hunter Woodall, Devin Brown and Dalton Sinquefield, among others.
Newton was the Ledger-Enquirer All-Bi-City player of the year last season because of his work on the mound and with a bat, and Rivera has had two full seasons of work pitching for the Panthers. All of them have played in big games and know what it takes to win late in the season.
"For the first time, we actually have some experience," Ferry said. "We've got some leadership this year. Our leadership last year was our junior class -- kids like Devin Brown and Hunter Woodall. Having that back is a big boost. It's the best group of kids I've ever been associated with, and I'm not talking about baseball players. I'm talking about character."
Despite Ferry's wishes, there will be expectations from many outside the program. None of his coaches nor players may say those two banned words, but other students, parents and people around the community undoubtedly have those expectations.
Brown said the players hear about it, but that it's their job to tune it out.
"People have high expectations for us and that kind of puts pressure on us, but all we can do is go out and do what we can do," he said. "It's a new year, new people. We try not to talk about it. We just have to keep working."
Newton noted how much can change from season to season. There are new players -- and new coaches -- who can alter each team's path from year to year.
"It's not something you can lean on," he said of winning state last year. "You've got to go get ready for a new season. It's not the same teams or the same players, so you've just got to go get ready."
Ready or not, the season is here. Smiths Station will get started on Monday, when it plays St. James and Jemison. The Panthers will likely face Auburn signee, pitcher Davis Daniel to get things going. The players are just happy to finally get back onto the field.
"We're ready," Newton said. "We're tired of hitting in these cages. We want to get on the field and face someone not on our team."
David Mitchell, Follow David on Twitter@leprepsports