When eight defensive starters from last year's SCISAA Class 2-A champion team graduated, Hilton Head Christian Academy reloaded.
When one of the players expected to help fill the void was lost for the season to a knee injury, an unproven junior stepped in and became the team's No. 3 tackler.
"That's really what makes us a good defense," senior outside linebacker Ryan Smith said. "When somebody goes down, we're able to plug somebody else in there and keep going."
And that ability is a big part of why the Eagles keep going ... and going ... and going deep into the playoffs every year.
If Hilton Head Christian's defense can turn in one more strong effort Friday against rival Hilton Head Prep, the Eagles will be headed to the SCISAA Class 2-A title game for the fourth time in five years.
And with so many key players to replace, especially on defense, Eagles coach Tommy Lewis said he didn't see this one coming before the season started.
"I don't know that I can really explain it," Lewis said. "I'm very pleasantly surprised that we are where we are now. I had no idea that we could be back in this position."
The Eagles figured they could get by on defense by scrapping their usual philosophy of trying to limit players to one side of the ball, and they have used more players two ways than in years past. But a handful of young, inexperienced players afforded the Eagles the luxury of keeping some of their stars on one side of the ball or the other, for the most part.
Three sophomores -- linebacker Clay Oliver and cornerbacks Tyler Chisholm and J.D. Reichel -- have been steady forces on defense and improved rapidly as the season has progressed, which has allowed Lewis to keep many of his starters at the skill positions fresh for offense.
That hasn't been an option for Cole Malphrus and Kyle Weaver, who find themselves starting on the offensive and defensive lines most games.
"They worked hard at getting in shape, because they rarely come off the field. They're two-way trench players and that's not an easy task," Lewis said. "To be able to pretty much own the line of scrimmage week in and week out certainly has afforded us the opportunity to bring along some of those perimeter players on both sides of the ball."
Even with an influx of new starters on defense, the one constant has been defensive coordinator Vinnie Emery, whose tireless film study and knack for game planning continuously impresses Lewis.
"No coach is ever any better than his players, but I also have arguably the best defensive coach in the state, as far as I'm concerned," Lewis said. "Vinnie does a great job with these guys. He has not lowered his expectation level with these guys, and he's a very good teacher. I've been amazed at what he's been able to get our kids to absorb in the video sessions and on the chalkboard and then execute it out on the field."
Smith said the Eagles' ability to execute Emery's complex schemes relies heavily on their defensive coordinator's knack for making them seem simple.
"He really knows how to boil it down and explain it on our level," Smith said. "I hear coach Lewis and coach Emery talking about some crazy stuff sometimes, but by the time it gets to me he knows exactly how to communicate it and exactly how to explain it."
For the second year in a row, Emery cooked up a scheme to at least slow down Hilton Head Prep's prolific passing game, as the Eagles held the Dolphins to seven points and 66 total yards in the second half of a 49-28 victory two weeks ago to clinch their second consecutive region title.
If they can do it again Friday, they'll get a shot at winning consecutive state titles for the first time in school history, but they aren't taking the challenge lightly.
"We're definitely not underestimating them," Smith said. "They're a great offense. We know how to play them now and the second half really showed us what we can do."