It shows up on T-shirts, workout-room walls and stadium banners.
It's a short phrase, just three words, but with it comes high expectations and hours of work.
Southlake Carroll won the 5A Division I state championship last year to become the second Texas team to win eight state titles. Here is why the Dragons will stay on top:1Kenny Hill
Hill became an unquestioned leader for Carroll with an incredible junior season. He is poised to have another strong season rushing and passing.2Tradition
When a school wins as much as Carroll has -- eight state championships, including five at the 5A level -- the players start believing they can win it all every year.3Pressure
Carroll coach Hal Wasson likes pressure, saying: "It makes me tick." His program follows suit, thriving in the toughest situations. Good thing, because the Dragons will be a target this season, playing with championship expectations and pressure each week.4Linebackers
Carroll has just a few returning starters on defense, but the Dragons' linebacking crew should be formidable. Jackson Mitchell and Steven Bergmark, who was on the field last year as a hard-nosed running back, are both athletic, tough players who will anchor Carroll's defense.5A.J. Ezzard
While Hill grabbed most of the offensive headlines for Carroll last year, Ezzard quietly put together a strong sophomore season. He could have an even bigger impact as a junior. Carroll's main offensive goal is to establish a strong running attack early. Everything else will follow.6Schedule
Carroll's tough schedule will force the younger Dragons to grow up quickly. Nondistrict games against Allen, Midland and Temple should give Carroll a realistic playoff simulation to start the year.7Receivers
Although the Dragons lost their four top receivers from last season, Wasson can rattle off eight more who are ready to fight for playing time. Senior safety Tanner Jacobson also will play some receiver. With Hill at QB and a slew of young, eager wideouts, get ready for some gaudy passing numbers.8Summer commitment
Even after winning a championship, the Carroll players showed up consistently over the summer, working on strength and conditioning. Hill said some of the younger receivers constantly texted him to drive to the school to practice routes.9Fans
Carroll won its 2011 championship in front of more than 45,000 fans at Cowboys Stadium. While Carroll won't play in front of that many fans in the regular season, the Dragons will get an added boost of adrenaline from rowdy crowds (a few hostile) every game.10Hal Wasson
You can never look past the overall leader of a football program, its head coach. For Carroll, Wasson is that steady leader. He guided the Dragons through many close games last season on the way to a 16-0 championship and wants to do it again.
Many schools proclaim it as a motto, posting "protect the tradition" signs across their athletic spaces. For some programs, the words mean team dedication. For others, a commitment to hard work or making the playoffs.
At Southlake Carroll, it means winning titles.
"People just expect us to win," said Carroll senior quarterback Kenny Hill, who was standing in the Dragons' indoor practice facility next to a window that has a painted "protect the tradition" insignia. "Carroll has been doing it since before I was born. We expect it out of ourselves. We expect to make a run at it every single year."
After Carroll defeated Fort Bend Hightower 36-29 in the Class 5A Division I state championship game in Cowboys Stadium last December, students started wearing T-shirts with the words "tradition protected" to commemorate the school's eighth state championship, which is tied for the most in Texas high school history.
"It means upholding the standard that has been here longer than any of the coaches or players," senior safety Tanner Jacobson said. "It stands for so much past winning football games, too. It's about character."
Now the Dragons are eying the 2012 trophy.
"It's our biggest driving force," Hill said. "That's where we are trying to go every single season. I want to leave Carroll with two championships ridiculously bad."
"Protect the tradition" is the blanket phrase for the Carroll program, one coach Hal Wasson says is "in granite." But Wasson creates a special motto each season, picking something that corresponds with each squad's personality. He hasn't settled on a specific one for 2012, but it won't be far from last year's appropriate image: "climbing the mountain."
"It was perfect, because the closer you get to the top, it gets more barren," Wasson said. "The higher, closer you get, the air gets thinner. It's steeper. One false step, and you can fall all the way down. One loss."
Hill and his teammates liked the verbal description.
"It gave us a clear visual picture of what we were trying to do," Hill said. "When we started the playoffs, it was like we could see the top. Then in the championship game, all we had to do was plant the flag."
Instead of seeing the Dragons still at the top of that mountain, ready to fend off challengers, Wasson said this year's team will have to start all over, climbing from the base.
"We've already drawn a line in the dirt and said: 'what happened last year, what happened yesterday, that's old news,'" Wasson said. "Starting now, all of that stuff is old. Now let's create a new legacy."
Wasson will learn much about the 2012 Dragons quickly. Carroll starts its championship defense with a game at Allen. The Dragons will also play Midland and Temple (at Cowboys Stadium) before starting District 7-5A play.
"I feel like people are underestimating us because we lost some players, but I want us to come out and show that we are back," Hill said. "I don't think our team will be much different this year. We are going to keep throwing the ball around, and we will have a strong running game as well."
Hill played a large role in Carroll's undefeated season as a junior. In the state championship game he ran for 116 yards and two touchdowns, and passed for 229 yards and two more scores. This year, a more experienced Hill should have opposing defenses running scared.
"I've been a head coach for 24 years, and I've never had a three-year starter at quarterback until Kenny," Wasson said. "Anytime you go in with an experienced signal-caller, it helps. He has maturity, has been in big games, and has some skins on the wall. We are confident he can continue to make plays for us, and I'm confident he won't rest on his laurels. He will keep improving."
Jacobson said Carroll's loss to Denton Guyer in the 5A Division II Region I final in 2010 motivated the Dragons through the summer to set up their 16-0 season in 2011. But even though last year ended with a celebration, he saw a similar drive this past summer.
"Now we know the feeling of winning a title, how good it feels," he said. "It's indescribable. That has us working just as hard. The younger guys under us who didn't get to play much last year are really mature, and they watched us win a championship. That has driven them to want to be out there this year and win one with us."
Brent Shirley, 817-390-7760
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