FISHER — Standing outside the relatively new weight room at Fisher High School on a mid-week afternoon last week, Jake Palmer's voice rises.
Straying ever so slightly from the steady, staccato clip the energetic third-year Fisher football coach usually brings, he gets a little fired up.
"Last year, there were some times where people probably looked at Fisher as an off week or a lighter week," Palmer said. "That's not the case anymore."
No, it's not. Not after the Bunnies finished 6-4, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Not after Fisher stunned 2016 Class 2A state champion Deer Creek-Mackinaw during the 2017 regular season.
And not even entering the 2018 season after Fisher graduated its top passer, top rusher and top tackler.
"Guys are going to have to step up, me being one of them for sure," junior quarterback Will Delaney said. "I think our leadership is going to be great this year, and that's going to help the young guys step up into their positions. Some guys have never really started on varsity. They're going to have to fill their role and be a big part of this team."
A team that boasted 35 athletes through the first week of practice is intent on not only reaching the playoffs for the second straight season, but winning some playoff games in the process. Fisher — which opens the season on Aug. 24 at Hoopeston Area/Schlarman Academy/Armstrong-Potomac — has qualified for the playoffs in 13 seasons, but the Bunnies' only two wins happened in 2005 when former coach Matt Leng's team advanced to the Class 1A state quarterfinals.Palmer's second team came agonizingly close to reaching the second round last fall, only to lose 30-27 at Freeport Aquin in the Bunnies' playoff opener when Aquin made the game-winning field goal by six inches in the closing seconds.
"It was a long, quiet bus ride," senior Tanner Diorio said. "We were happy that we made it to the playoffs, but losing by six inches was tough."
Diorio returns to help anchor the offensive line in Fisher's triple-option offense, with fellow senior Andrew Zook another vital linchpin on the line. When Delaney — who takes over for Kade Thomas under center after Thomas rushed for 811 yards and threw for 991 yards, combining for 23 touchdowns last season — hands the ball off this year, it won't be to Jaden Jones-Watkins. Jones-Watkins paced the Bunnies with 1,328 rushing yards and 15 TDs a year ago.
"A lot of our stats from last year are gone," Palmer said, "but we really feel like we have some skill guys who are still going to be really talented."
Count Delaney, junior Tyler Wilson, sophomore Cale Horsch and senior Corey Hicks among those guys in the backfield. Seniors Andrew Koslowski and Tyler Martin are expected to lead the wide receivers.
"Even though we're losing a lot, we've been able to build a lot in the weight room and through our strength program and get those guys who are athletic and explosive," Palmer said. "That's what we're hoping for."
Defensively, linebacker Jacob Horsch graduated, too, along with his team-high 105 tackles. Seniors Dylan Baker and Hunter Foster, along with Zook, are expected to shore up this year's crop of linebackers, with fellow seniors Tyrese Martin and Noah Taylor manning key spots in the secondary. Diorio is slated to spark the defensive line at nose guard.
"I just have to give full effort," Diorio said, "and be in the best possible shape I can be in so I can try my best all the time."
That comment reflects what Palmer shares often with his entire program.
"Teams are starting to realize how hard we're going to play and the way we're willing to go at it on Friday nights," Palmer said. "That's what I'm trying to preach to these guys: effort, effort, effort. That's what you've got to do when you've got 35 guys in your program, and you're playing teams with 80 kids on the sidelines."Facing defending 2A state champion Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, perennial power Tri-Valley and a host of other solid foes from both the Heart of Illinois Conference Small and the HOIC Large means the effort and intensity has to stay consistent all season for the Bunnies.
Of course, having a turnaround like what Fisher produced last year only raises expectations of what to expect out of the Bunnies this fall. And that's OK with this particular Fisher team.
"We weren't really winning before, and now we want to go out and win every game," Delaney said. "It changed the whole mind-set of how everybody thinks about our program."
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Aug. 24 at HASAAP 7 p.m.
Aug. 31 vs. Tremont 7 p.m.
Sept. 7 at Tri-Valley 7 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Flanagan-Cornell/Woodland 7 p.m.
Sept. 21 vs. GCMS 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 at Heyworth 7 p.m.
Oct. 5 vs. Deer Creek-Mackinaw 7 p.m.
Oct. 12 vs. Ridgeview/Lexington 7 p.m.
Oct. 19 at LeRoy 7 p.m.