There are challenges, and then there is what Chad Walsh faced when he accepted the head coaching position at Valley before last season.
The Vikings' recent history had been far from flattering: Two consecutive winless seasons, 22 losses in a row, and a different coach for the third consecutive year.
This season, Valley doesn't have to worry about putting an end to a long losing streak or auditioning for a new coach. Instead, the Vikings have their sights set on making a repeat trip to the playoffs and winning a conference title.
What a difference a year makes.
Valley was one of the surprise teams in the WPIAL last season. Having gone nearly three years without a victory, the Vikings won six games and advanced to the WPIAL Class AA playoffs. A program that was downtrodden not long ago now looks to add more success to its swift ascent.
"The commitment from the kids has been great," Walsh said. "They've bought into the program. We were able to put in a full offseason program. The kids have a lot of confidence."
That confidence began to build after a 14-7 win against Deer Lakes in the 2012 season opener. Suddenly, the team that couldn't win a game was off to an unbeaten start. After two losses, Valley earned a hard-fought 9-8 victory against defending Allegheny Conference champion Freeport.
At that point, Walsh said his players began to believe they could be part of a remarkable turnaround season.
"I started to see it in their eyes," Walsh said. "The confidence really began to build from that point on. When they walked onto the field, they thought they would win every night."
The marquee triumph marked the beginning of a five-game winning streak. Valley lost its regular-season finale at Ford City by one point, and the Vikings -- who finished fourth in the conference -- saw their season end at 6-4 after a 28-14 first-round playoff defeat at Beaver.
Can Valley keep it up? Walsh thinks so. A coaching staff that worked magic last season has added a familiar face -- former head coach Troy Hill. In his seven seasons from 2004-10, Hill led the Vikings to the playoffs four times. Hill will help coach the wide receivers and defensive backs.
"It's nice to have him back," said Walsh. "Just his experience out there and the way he works with the kids, it really shows."
What showed last season was the talent of running back Demetrius Houser, who was the focal point of the Valley offense. Houser, now a senior, ran for 1,193 yards and scored a team-high 15 touchdowns. He averaged 9.2 yards per carry. In a 40-28 win at Yough, Houser rushed for 190 yards, scoring on touchdown runs of 44, 54 and 70 yards. He returned a blocked punt 45 yards for another touchdown.
Valley's second-leading rusher from a year ago, Jaden Walker, graduated, as did top receiver Chaz Cheatham, so Houser will assume an even bigger role in the offense this season.
"We like to set the tone running the football, and he's a big part of the offense," Walsh said.
How Valley fares defensively might be the biggest key, just as it was during last season's resurgence. After surrendering 35 points per game in 2011, Valley gave up 19.5 in 2012.
Walsh, who expects to field a roster of about 40 players this season, hopes what his team experienced a year ago was only a preview of what is yet to come.
"We just want to come in and build off of last season," said Walsh. "Now that we have the confidence that we can compete, our goals are to fight for that conference title. We want to be one of the top two teams and get a home playoff game."
Added Walsh: "We just want to put Valley football back on the map."hsfootball