Even without the two 1,000-yard rushers from his 2007 team, Tabb High coach Matt Lawson was sure before this season that his offense would be good. Around 320 yards and 30 points per game later, Lawson's faith has been justified.
The defense was more of a concern, but Lawson believed that unit also could be good if newcomers filled in adequately.
Inside linebacker Ian Haislip and strong safety Dillon Biagas have done more than that, vaulting to stardom more quickly than even Lawson expected.
Haislip, a 5-foot-11, 176-pound sophomore, notched 93 tackles, including nine for loss, to earn first-team All-Bay Rivers District honors.
Biagas, a 5-8, 158-pound junior, made 78 tackles to land a spot on the all-district second team.
Thanks in part to contributions from Haislip and Biagas, the Tigers matched last season's 8-2 mark and advanced to the Region I Division 4 playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
The Tigers will play at Southside District champion Powhatan (9-1) at 7:30 tonight in the semifinals.
"They've brought an intensity to the field that you don't expect to see from guys who were on the junior varsity last year," Lawson said. "They've been a little bit of a surprise, but the closer we got to the season, the more you could see they could be something special."
Haislip didn't have a clue he could be something special. Up until a week before the season opener against Grafton, he thought he was going to be a backup.
"The day before the Grafton game it hit me that, 'Wow, I'm on the first team,' " Haislip said. "I vowed to work my butt off because I couldn't let that go."
Haislip made an early impression on his teammates by flipping a Grafton ball-carrier with a big hit early in the Tigers' 28-7 victory.
"Ian's my boy, because he plays with power," Biagas said. "He'll hit you hard, hit you in the mouth and like doing it."
Haislip has used his speed and quickness to run down opponents and deliver some of the biggest hits on the Tabb defense this season.
He doesn't even mind that he's been on the receiving end of a jolting hit or two.
"I was pursuing a ball-carrier on a misdirection play in the Lafayette game, and (Rams end) Will Hill really laid the wood on me," he said. "It's pretty intimidating going up against these guys that are being heavily recruited, but I love the challenge of a good player coming at me 100 percent."
Biagas has faced that challenge since elementary school.
His older brothers Jared and Tyler played football for Tabb, and they saw to it that Biagas was given a rough indoctrination into the sport.
"We'd play football in the backyard all of the time," he said. "I ran back inside the house crying lots of times with a bloody nose or bloody lip. They would come in, we'd watch some football on TV and then we'd all go right back outside and play some more.
"They taught me to love the game."
Biagas is more of a technician, a wrap-up tackler, than Haislip. But he's managed a highlight-reel hit or two this season.
"One of Jamestown's receivers did a crossing route, jumped high into the air for a pass and I leveled him," Biagas said. "A tackle like that feels like hitting a baseball on the sweet spot of the bat.
"I know he felt it because it hurt me."
Biagas is excited about being on the first Tabb football team to reach the playoffs since the 1993 season.
Tabb football is not only a family tradition, but that backyard where he learned the game is located on Terry's Run — named for Tabb immortal Terry Kirby.
"Learning about him growing up made me want to play harder when I got to Tabb," he said. "It made me believe we could get to the playoffs if we worked hard.
"Now we've got to go out and get the job done."
Today's game WHAT: Division 4 Region I semifinal.WHO: No. 3 Tabb (8-2) at No. 2 Powhatan (9-1).WHEN: 7:30 p.m.Dynamic debut A look at Tabb's star first-year defenders:Ian Haislip, 93 tackles, 43 solo, nine tackles for loss, one interception, one forced fumble.Dillon Biagas, 78 tackles, 35 solo, three tackles for loss, two pass breakups, one forced fumble.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times