Improved conditioning and swelling confidence have South Lakes poised to keep soaring.

2015 record: 9-3, lost to Westfield in 6A North region quarterfinals

Returning starters: 7 offense / 6 defense

Style of play: spread-option offense / 4-2-5 defense

Key returning players: QB Devin Miles, Jr. (2,079 passing yards, 23 touchdowns, 12 interceptions); RB/DE Albert Mensah, Jr. (303 rushing yards, six touchdowns, 38 tackles, 6.5 sacks); RB/WR Spencer Alston, Sr. (538 rushing yards, seven touchdowns, 75 receiving yards); OL/DL David Kroll, Sr.

Toughest matchups:

Sept. 9 at Briar Woods: A 24-20 home loss to Briar Woods, which finished the season with just three wins, marked the Seahawks' only true letdown last season. A road victory against the Falcons this year could provide South Lakes a big boost heading into conference play.

Oct. 14 vs. Madison: The Seahawks are still smarting from last year's 38-6 dismantling at the hands of their Conference 6 rivals.

The Skinny

The results could not have been much worse for Trey Taylor in 2014, his first year as head coach at South Lakes. With new coaches, new systems and a thin defense, the Seahawks won just two games that fall. Those triumphs came against Jefferson and Marshall, which went on to accumulate just two victories between them all season.

One year later, wins began flowing into the Reston school like water bursting from a long-dormant spigot. They came against Yorktown, a longtime Arlington power that might have once considered South Lakes an afterthought. Against arch rival Herndon, which went from pulverizing the Seahawks, 49-0, in 2014 to getting pulverized, 50-13, in 2015. Against Oakton, a Concorde stalwart only three years removed from a region title.

Taylor's boys nearly did it again in the region quarterfinals against Westfield. They had the three-time defending region finalists on the ropes, leading the Bulldogs in the fourth quarter before surrendering a back-breaking kickoff return touchdown that led to a 24-13 defeat.

South Lakes players still look back on that playoff performance as a watershed moment for their pretender-to-contender program. Westfield went on to win the state championship last year. Why can't South Lakes aim just as high?

"It really opened players' eyes that we can compete against those types of people," junior defensive end Albert Mensah said. "No one's really better than us. It's just about how we play."

Indeed, the Seahawks are hardly lacking in the talent department. Mensah, whom Taylor calls his team's Swiss army knife, is a 200-pound block of steel that runs over tacklers out of the backfield as a tailback as easily as he runs over them into the backfield as a defensive end. Junior quarterback Devin Miles returns to lead the offense after a breakout sophomore campaign highlighted by 23 passing touchdowns. Senior lineman David Kroll, a 6-foot-7, 325-pound Goliath, will pave the way for a spread-option offense that finally has a firm grip on Taylor's quirky schemes.

The main ingredient behind South Lakes' whirlwind turnaround, Taylor says, stems from improved physicality. Though modest numbers still force most of them to play on both sides of the ball, the Seahawks' heightened demands in the weight room have made them stronger than ever before. Self-belief grew when players realized they could physically compete against anyone, and wins piled up from there.

That trend should carry into the 2016 season. Kroll, who could barely bench half his body weight two years ago, parlayed his newfound strength and quickness into a commitment to play for the University of Richmond next year. Mensah, at age 16, already squats 535 pounds. When he didn't have a ride to practice last Monday, Mensah simply ran the five miles to school and hopped into conditioning drills.

"People look up to me now, so I have to give a good example for them and put 100-percent effort in practice so they can follow along," Mensah said.

Offensively, this will be the first year in which Taylor's personnel enters the season fully acclimated to his system. Heading into last fall, Taylor scrapped his Chip Kelly-styled, no-huddle offense that relied on sideline signage in 2014. The objective nowadays is to confuse defenses with multiple looks, congregating two yards behind the ball before every play and then snapping it within two seconds of breaking the huddle.

"We see it everyday and we still have a hard time getting lined up to it," Taylor said.

Replicating last year's success won't be easy, especially after graduating leading wide receiver Eric Kirlew and losing senior Henry Andrich to a knee injury earlier this summer. Still, the belief in Reston is that this team can go further.

"I think athletically and physically we're deeper than we were last year," Taylor said, "and I think we can be better."

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