This wasn't the senior season Dan Bowling had dreamed about.
It was supposed to be a season of celebration. A season of redemption. As freshmen, Bowling's class watched the varsity go 0-10. As sophomores, Mission Viejo won only one league game.
But last season, Mission Viejo turned a corner by reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1994, with Bowling and his classmates playing a major role. Coach Bill Denny's revival program began to take hold.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Denny died of a heart attack in late June.
And as fall approached, it wasn't easy for Bowling and his teammates to return to practice.
"It's strange," said Steve Carnes, Mission Viejo's Athletic Director and new football coach. "You still expect to see Bill out there on the practice field with his whistle."
And in a way, Denny still is.
"We've kept a lot of his same strategies and his principles," Bowling said. "It was hard coming back at first. We all gathered in the weight room and got it all out.
"Some talked about how we missed him. We huddled together, hugged each other, cried together. Then we decided there was no more grieving."
Bowling said it was time for the Diablos to concentrate on getting ready for the season. He knows he's a focal point for the Diablos this season as the team's featured running back, and now he hopes he and his teammates can make their old coach proud.
"We're his team," Bowling said. "We've dedicated the season to him and we want to show everyone how good a coach he was."
Said Carnes: "What made Bill a special person was his dedication to the kids. I mean, as teachers, we're all dedicated to the kids. But Bill took it a step further."
Denny made Carnes his offensive coordinator last season after Carnes helped out with the sophomores from 1993 to 1996.
Carnes was hired in 1992 as the boys' athletic director. But he was content to just help out with the football team because he had already enjoyed a successful head coaching career at Lawndale Leuzinger High--his teams won five league titles and a Southern Section title in 1985.
Now Carnes has stepped back into a head coaching role, but it's also clear he's well-equipped and experienced to help the Diablos fulfill Denny's vision.
And it doesn't hurt to have some players around like Bowling.
Bowling, who led the team in rushing in four of the final five games, split time with Mike Chavis for most of the season but asserted himself late and started in the Division I playoff game against Esperanza.
"Dan's a hard-runner, a quick-hitting type of runner," Carnes said. "When you look at him, you think he's a wide receiver. But he's a strong kid with strong legs. He just gets yardage."
And Carnes is hoping for even more production from Bowling this season.
"I think it was easier splitting time with Mike last season," Bowling said. "Now it's like people are out to get me. I know everyone is expecting me to do some great things. I just have to get out there and bang some heads."
Bowling, who is 6 feet and 185 pounds, figures to have some running room this season with an offensive line that averages 6-3, 265.
"I think our line is one of the best in the county," Bowling said.
And Bowling hopes the Diablos can prove their old coach was one of the best.
"If we do end up losing a few games this season, I want to see us go down fighting," Bowling said. "I'm looking forward to this season. I see so much heart. I hope we never give up."