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After Cleveland Hill returned to the top of Class C football in Section VI last season, the Eagles are going to be the team circled on everyone’s calendar this season.

And that’s exactly the way they like it.

“We’re going to come back strong,” senior lineman Manny Al-Hemyari said. “Everyone’s going to be out to get us this season but we like that competition.”

“We don’t want to be underdogs,” added junior running back Aaron Wahler, a returning 1,000-yard rusher. “We want to be favorites; we like that challenge.”

The Eagles dominated Class C last season and won the program’s first Section VI championship since 2013. Cleveland Hill ended the year at 9-2 overall with both losses coming by two points – 14-12 to Class B rival Maryvale in the opener and 40-38 to Bishop Kearney in the Far West Regionals.

Cleveland Hill is the favorite to repeat – and that’s always the hope for the Eagles.

“That’s always a goal,” Cleveland Hill head coach Glen Graham said. “We tell everybody we want to be playing for championships at the end of the season. We’re taking it one day at a time but certainly the sectional (championship) goal is always out there for us.”

Cleveland Hill graduated 10 players from last year’s squad, including three that excelled in the recent Kensington Lions All-Star Game. But they have a strong group of returnees and some promising newcomers from a junior varsity team that went 6-2 last season.

We’ve got a nice combination of veteran players coming back and some good kids coming up from JV,” Graham said. “We’re very fortunate, we lost some good players but we have a lot of experience coming back as well.”

Perhaps the biggest loss from last year’s championship squad was running back and linebacker Matt Eldridge. The big man led the team in rushing with 1,165 yards and 15 touchdowns and also topped the club in tackles with 118.

Losing a 1,000-yard rusher is usually a tough blow for a Class C school – but in Cleveland Hill’s case, the Eagles still have one more left in the cupboard. Wahler – who stands at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds with as Graham says “good sprinter speed” rushed for exactly 1,000 yards on just 99 carries and also scored a team-best 16 touchdowns as a junior. He may be expected to carry more of the load this season – but with a lot of confidence in his fellow backfield mates, he’s not feeling overwhelmed entering his junior year.

“Not much pressure really,” Wahler said. “He’s going to be real tough to replace but we can all work together to make up for it.”

This season’s backfield also includes senior D’Mario Grant (408 yards and five TDs last year) and senior Ryan Majerowski (202 yards, two TDs).

Majerowski, an all-state linebacker, will help lead the defense. He recorded 65 tackles and seven sacks last year. Al-Hemyari led the team with 7 1/2 sacks and added 49 tackles

“We’re looking good this season,” Wahler said. “It’s tough to replace what we lost from last year but we have a good group coming up from JV.”