Initially, it would be easy to brush off Isaac Weaver saying his team has to ignore outsiders' expectations as unremarkable, just another athlete hitting on a preseason talking point with the media.
When you remember the team Weaver plays for, however, his words ring a bit differently.
It's been a very long time since an Andrews football team entered the season having to ignore the hype, but that's the position Weaver and this year's Wildcats find themselves in after flashes of success in each of the previous two campaigns.
Usually one of the Smoky Mountain Conference bottom-dwellers, Andrews has the potential to win its first league title since 1983, setting the stage for one of the mostanticipated seasons in program history.
"I think everybody expects us to have a good year," Weaver said. "I guess everybody would say, this is the group, and it's our best shot, a lot of stuff. It's just exciting."
SMOKY MOUNTAIN TEAM BREAKDOWNS: Key players and season analysis for every SMC school
2022 Schedules: Who's on the schedule for every team in the region
Running backs in WNC: Here are 10 top RBs for the 2022 football season
After plenty of success at the youth levels, the potential of the 2022 season truly became clear during Weaver's freshman campaign in 2019, when he and the Wildcats JV team went undefeated.
"Always our goal has been to win a championship at Andrews, stay together and see what we can do," Weaver said. "[After 2019], we realized that we're this close to varsity and we're still dominating. So we didn't see why we couldn't do that come senior year."
This year will revolve around the senior class that led to that JV championship. The Wildcats' "veer" offense funnels carries to Weaver and Austin Martin, who combined for 2,239 rushing yards and 20 total touchdowns last season.
The push up front is provided by players such as senior Drew Martin, the 2021 co-Lineman of the Year in the conference and Andrews' leading tackler at linebacker.
"This bunch of seniors, they're a really good bunch, and they've never had losing seasons," coach James Phillips said. "They've got some really high expectations, which is good."
The past two seasons since have been a mixed bag of milestones and missed opportunities.
During the spring, Andrews won four conference games (its most in at least 25 years) and beat Swain County for the first time since 1996. Last season, the Wildcats were the only WNC team to beat eventual 1A runner-up Mitchell, snapped a 40-year losing streak against Murphy and won a playoff game.
But the conference crown has proven elusive.
"If you go back and track our progress the past few years, I think you would see the line graph trending upwards," said Phillips, who took over the program in 2016. "They've been good seasons for us, but we also had some losses. ... We left some things on the table that we shouldn't have."
Remembering those missed opportunities has been a mantra for the Wildcats over the offseason. Their three conference losses were each by 10 points or less, and their second-round playoff defeat came in overtime.
"They've got a better understanding the last two seasons," Phillips said, "that in big football games, it's the little things."
That drive led to increased attendance at summer workouts and a focus on fostering improvement for senior quarterback Donovan Bateman, whose reported development would be a game-changer for the Andrews offense.
But more than anything, health may be what dictates how far the Wildcats go in 2022.
Last year, a three-game losing streak coincided with Weaver and Martin both being limited due to injuries. Phillips said he felt he could have managed their workload more carefully early in the season, a lesson that may prove crucial this fall.
It's also an example of why sustained success has proven so hard to come by at Andrews, one of the smallest football schools in the state, and how impressive it will be if the Wildcats can make more history with a league championship in 2022.
"We're really looking forward to trying to see what can accomplish," Weaver said, "and we've got one goal."
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Andrews football eyeing Smoky Mountain Conference history in 2022