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A season after winning its ninth section title, Vista is hoping tradition doesn’t graduate. The Panthers defend their Division I crown in 2011 with only four returning starters from last season.

“It’s going to be a big challenge because a lot of our starting guys last year were seniors and we have a lot of people coming up from JV,” said Vista senior linebacker T.J. McWhite. “Practice by practice we will get better.”

In 2010, Vista reached Qualcomm Stadium for the second straight season and left it with their first section championship since 2001. Panthers head coach Dan Williams said the victory brought back the Big Red tradition.

“Vista is one of the perennial powers in San Diego, and it was a long time coming living up to the expectations that we had set forth for the kids and the school and the community,” Williams said.

Gone to graduation from that team is a host of talent and experience, including Division I recruits Stefan McClure (California) and Alex Kelley (Colorado). Despite those losses, Williams thinks Vista can contend again this season.

“We’re not as blessed talent wise and we don’t have the superstars or the big guys up front,” Williams said. “But I think what we have is heart and desire and the knowing of what it takes to get to the championship game.”

Vista’s top returning seniors are co-captains McWhite and receiver/defensive back Mundo Ramirez, two-way lineman Anthony Rodriquez, defensive lineman Justin Ponce and running back/linebacker Marley Arce. Those players have taken a leadership role during the offseason to help bring the younger players up to speed.

“I think they do feel more pressure, because there are a lot more of them that have to step up than last year,” Ramirez said. “There’s going to be a lot of juniors starting this year.”

On offense, the Panthers find themselves in the unique situation of having to replace all 11 starters. As a result, Vista is keeping things simple when they have the ball.

“We’re not doing all kinds of different formations offensively,” Williams said. “We’re going to back to traditional Vista football where we’re sitting in the ‘I’ formation.”

Senior running back Devin Hickey will carry the load on the ground for a Vista offense quarterbacked by senior Justin Shute. When the Panthers pass, senior Matt Macey will be the main target.

“He’s going to be a big time receiver,” Williams said.

Because of the Panthers’ lack of experience, Williams said practices have been run at a remedial pace in camp. He said the team is behind where he expected them to be heading into their scrimmage this Friday.

“We’re letting the new guys learn it first, and we want to keep it simple to get down the main things we do,” Rodriquez said. “Later on we can start bringing in our more sophisticated stuff.”

Vista opens the season at home against Hawaiian power Punahou on Sept. 3. The Panthers have a difficult preseason slate that includes section powers Helix and Oceanside along with senior-heavy Temecula Great Oak.

“We don’t think anybody has this type of schedule,” McWhite said. “It’s going to show what Vista football is all about.”

For Vista to repeat in Division I, it will be an uphill battle. How quickly the Panthers’ new faces adapt to the varsity level will determine how far they go this season.

“That’s the key to this team – how are they going to act and how are they going to react to the adversity of wins and losses? If they can overcome that I think they are going to be a pretty good football team,” Williams said.

Pictured: Vista celebrates its 2010 Division I championship

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