It didn't take much to get South Adams senior quarterback James Arnold motivated for the 2020 campaign.
A year ago, the Starfires ran off 12 straight wins, broke or tied 44 school records, captured their first Allen County Conference crown since 1993, and claimed a Class 1A sectional crown for the first time since 2016.
However, all of those accomplishments seemed meaningless after a 19-7 loss at rival Adams Central in the regional round, a club they had beaten 42-14 earlier in the season, brought the dream campaign to a disappointing finish.
"I felt like I had let our community down," recalled Arnold. "We all worked really hard to make sure that we can do what we need to do. The realization that we are beatable led us to reach a whole new level this year."
Arnold and company have seemingly put the past behind them by establishing 30 more school records, running off a program-best 13 victories, and winning their first semistate title in the process.
Now, they will look to finish the job on Saturday when top-ranked South Adams (13-0) meets No. 5 Covenant Christian (14-0) for the Class 1A state football championship at Lucas Oil Stadium.
After throwing for a school-best 3,168 yards (158-of-271) with 43 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2019, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound four-year starter has proven to be even better by going 181-of-267 for 3.458 yards with 44 scores and seven interceptions.
"Coming into the season I think the expectation was definitely to have a better season than last year," explained Arnold. "Our team worked so hard over the off-season, so I don't think having a letdown was ever a consideration."
However, he has not had to carry the load by himself.
Fellow all-state performers like wide receiver Drew Stutzman (44 catches for 1,075 yards with 18 touchdowns), tight end-defensive lineman Nick Miller (31 receptions for 553 yards with five scores and 64 tackles), and fellow defensive lineman Austin Gorney (96 tackles) have also lent helping hands to a club that has scored a school-best 621 points and allowed an average of just nine points a game.
"With so many guys playing both ways, success on one side of the ball really carries momentum to the other side," Arnold said. "We have had a lot of success this year scoring after our defense gets a turnover. With all of the talent on our team, it creates a really competitive atmosphere where we all push each other and want to succeed."
After watching Arnold throw for more 2,300 yards with 22 touchdowns and 11 interceptions during his freshman and sophomore campaigns, South Adams head coach Grant Moser has seen his veteran signal caller develop into a leader both on and off the gridiron.
"I cannot say enough good things about a kid like James," explained Moser, who is in his sixth season on the sidelines. "I am not even talking about the fact that he has thrown for 9000 yards and 100 touchdowns in his career. His work ethic, leadership, and academic endeavors (4.2 grade-point average) go far beyond what is expected of many kids his age.
"He has put our team on his back multiple times over the last four years. It was an absolute honor to be able to coach him."
Arnold has a considerable amount of respect as well for Moser and the rest of the staff.
"Our coaches have done a really good job this year of making sure that we don't get complacent, which may have been a problem last season," Arnold explained. "They make sure every week that we realize although we may have had a big win, we have loftier goals than just winning a conference or sectional championship."
With aspirations of playing at the collegiate level next fall, he also owes a lot of gratitude to his elders for keeping him on the straight and narrow path toward success.
"My family, specifically my parents and grandparents, have been the most influential people in my life," added Arnold, who has gotten interest from several schools, including Marian University.
Playing in his final home game, Arnold went out in style by going 16-of-26 for 296 yards with three touchdowns in a 42-9 triumph over defending state champion Lafayette Central Catholic.
Now, he gets the chance to close out his high school career by performing on the biggest stage possible.
"It's really exciting to make it to state for the first time for our community, but it isn't our final goal," Arnold said. "We want to win a state championship. It's something I have dreamed about since I was a little kid. Since we were in elementary school, my friends and I have said we would play in the state championship game."