Jason Hiser always believed he could bring Pleasure Ridge Park back from tragedy.
The challenge was convincing prospective players to buy into the rebuilding process.
Hiser took over the football program at the Louisville school in 2009 after former coach Jason Stinson was charged with reckless homicide following the heat-related death of Max Gilpin the year before. Stinson was acquitted, but Hiser had to start over with a small staff and no junior varsity.
Two losing seasons followed before PRP reached the second round of the Class 6A playoffs. The Panthers went even further this year, going 14-0 and reaching their first state championship game before losing 61-7 to Louisville Trinity.
"It was the most exciting year here for football," said Hiser, chosen Coach of the Year by a statewide panel of Associated Press members. "To have the staff that I had and the support of the school and the players, it was very rewarding."
Hiser was a PRP assistant coach at the time of Gilpin's death. After becoming head coach, his simple goal was finding players willing to put in the commitment to make the Panthers competitive.
In other words, there was no timetable for success. The Panthers went 3-8 and 5-6 and were throttled in the first round of the playoffs both times.
Then came last season's breakthrough, when PRP went 9-2 before losing 48-0 to Henderson County in the second round. The loss taught Hiser and his players that they had to get stronger if they were going to compete with the state's dominant teams.
"I've never been big on numbers, so what we required was that the kids show up and be accountable," said Hiser, 31-18 in four seasons at PRP. "This senior class, many of them we had as freshmen and it seemed like it multiplied by two every year.
"The more kids that bought into the system, the better the attitudes were. And this year's attitude was a big reason why we had the year we had."
Hiser's simple goal this season was beating the teams the Panthers were supposed to beat and carrying that momentum into games against tougher opponents. By any measure it worked: Pleasure Ridge Park, with 17 seniors, averaged 47.3 points per game and won by an average margin of 30.4 points.
Powerhouse Trinity had the final word in the championship, but Hiser views that as a major step forward for his program.
"It was very significant," he said. "We wanted to say our goal was a state championship but wanted to be specific about what we wanted to accomplish: a district title, going 10-0, winning the regional championship. ...
"Next year, I have to say I believe that we'll be back."