Lake Highlands head football coach Mike Zoffuto wasn’t happy to see his team ranked high in the pre-season.

Despite only three starters back on offense and five on defense, and the loss of both coordinators, the Wildcats are ranked in the Top 10 in virtually every statewide poll. Lake Highlands, coming off a 9-4 season, is also the consensus favorite to win District 11-5A.

Zoffuto says the pre-season hype leaves him a bit puzzled.

“What people don’t understand is we’ve had such tremendous change in all things,” Zoffuto says. “It’s just amazing with all the questions we have.”

Perhaps after five straight playoff appearances out of one of the state’s toughest districts, the rest of Texas is beginning to take notice of the so-called “other” Wildcats from 11-5A

“I was surprised to see that in the polls. We’ve never started out in the Top 20 in the polls, so that shows you what the polls know,” Zoffuto says.

“I’m flattered that the coaches, or whoever it is, respect us that much, but this district this year is just going to be phenomenal.”

True, Plano is coming off a season in which the maroon Wildcats played for the Division I state title. And Plano East, another playoff team a year ago, is enthused about new head coach Scott Phillips. And one can never count out Richardson.

But enough signs point to a stellar season for the Wildcats to sway the media and coaches.

There’s fullback Dexter Ford, a 6-foot, 195-pound juggernaut who rushed for 1,700 yards last season with an average of 7.9 yards a carry. There’s defensive back Paul Broome, who last year led Class 5A with 11 interceptions. There’s also linebacker Anthony Hicks, who recorded 84 tackles last year as a tackle.

And then there are the youngsters, such as junior quarterbacks Marcus Stiggers (5-feet, 7-inches and 170 pounds) and Steve Holley (6-feet-tall and 180 pounds) who will battle for the starting job.

“This team, potentially, could get into the playoffs,” Zoffuto says. “That’s their potential. That’s our goal, not the district championship, but to get in the playoffs.”

“The district championship, I think, is more prestigious than any except the state championship. That’s how tough our district is.”

Things became a little tougher for Lake Highlands in the off-season with the loss of four coaches. Offensive coordinator Ken Wheaton took the head coaching job in Arkadelphia, Ark, and took receivers coach Mark Pace with him. Defensive coordinator Joe Boring left to take a position in the Dallas Cowboys organization, while defensive ends coach J.B. Wallace left to become the defensive coordinator at Skyline.

Assistant Jim Ledford was promoted to coordinate Lake Highlands’ potent Wishbone offense, while longtime assistant Jerry Gayden was put in charge of the Cats’ “50” defense.

By promoting from within, the team will be familiar with the men running the offensive and defensive units.

“Our philosophy is going to stay the same,” Zoffuto says. “We may open up a little more offensively, but we’re going to maintain a strong running game.”

To the average fan, the biggest change will be at quarterback. With the departure of veteran Kent Ackmann, the job falls to juniors Holley and Stiggers.

While both players offer considerable physical skills, Zoffuto says the job will go to the one who can call audibles and make adjustments on the run. He says his quarterbacks have audibled as much as 75 percent of the time in some games.

“The number one thing about quarterback is you have to have a brain,” Zoffuto says. “If you don’t have a brain, you can’t be a quarterback at Lake Highlands.”

At this point, Zoffuto says there’s not much difference between Holley and Stiggers. Holley brings height and a good passing arm to the table, while Stiggers is a terrific runner who has played in the LH offense since junior high.

“They’re pretty similar. Steve is fast, he’s a 4.6-type kid. I’ll take a 4.6,” Zoffuto says. “Overall, Steve is probably a little bit better thrower than Marcus, but Marcus is a little more familiar with the offense.

“There’s not going to be a quarterback controversy at Lake Highlands because they’re both going to play quarterback.”

Stiggers, because of his breakaway ability, could also see time at receiver or running back.

The Lake Highlands quarterback, whoever it is, may not need to do much more than hand off to fullback Ford. Although not the bruiser Detron Smith was a few years ago, Ford is one of the premier backs in the area.

“Dexter Ford will be as good as his offensive line makes him,” Zoffuto says. “He’s more of a running back type, but he has a chance to carry the ball more often at fullback then he would at halfback.”

The halfback slots are still open, but Lake Highlands has never been short of good running backs. Glen Johnson and Charles Hawkins are among the candidates.

A concern, however, is at the offensive line, where guard Chase Leavell is the only returning starter. Brent Archie, Michael Savage, and Blake Reyna are expected to help.

At tight end, Brian Lonergan is back. Lonergan will also see duty at split end, where Terry Snow returns after starting as a sophomore.

On defense, Hicks is moving to linebacker after a stellar season at tackle. His move leaves nose guard Jose Yllana as the only returning starter on the defensive line, but Ian White is expected to contribute. Andy White is also projected to help at linebacker.

The defensive backfield is Lake Highlands’ most experienced area. Besides Broome, who made a pre-season All-State team, the Cats return two others with starting experience. Che Hendrix returns as strong safety and Jason Gaut is back at cornerback.

Once the positions are settled, the Wildcats begin a difficult schedule, with the season opener Sept. 2 against Irving Nimitz in the Cotton Bowl. After non-district games with Tyler Lee and Irving MacArthur, the Cats open District 11-5A play at Plano East.

Other challenges include a home game in week seven against Richardson, then another trip to Plano to face the other Wildcats in week nine. They close the season against Berkner, with the bragging rights to Wildcat-Ram Stadium on the line.

“We play Richardson and Plano late, and I don’t like that at all,” Zoffuto says. “We have Plano East right off the bat, the first district game, and they’re going to be high as kites.”

Then again, Lake Highlands has played similarly tough schedules in the past and it hasn’t kept the Wildcats out of the playoffs the last five years.

“I don’t want an easy schedule,” Zoffuto says. “I want a tough schedule.”