Notre Dame Prep defensive back Max Bergamo

Notre Dame Prep defensive back Max Bergamo (right) attempts to cover Centennial receiver Dyelan Miller in the 5A state-championship football game at Sun Devil Stadium. The Saints' defense had been stout before the Coyotes had no trouble cracking it in a 60-7 rout.

A year ago, George Prelock was a first-year coach joining a Notre Dame Prep program amid controversy involving his predecessor.

The Saints pieced it together and made a surprising, undefeated run to the 5A championship game. They lost to Centennial. And then, nearly everybody graduated.

This season, despite replacing 20 of 22 starters, the Saints marched through another undefeated campaign to the 5A title game. They lost again to Centennial. Even worse, 60-7. Still, under the circumstances, it was another remarkable result against a difficult schedule.

Notre Dame’s 26-2 record over the two-year span was cause for celebration, but the Saints believe there may be even better days ahead as several key players are expected back next season.

“We’re excited for next year,” Prelock said in the moments after the championship-game loss. “But today we’re going to let this game and this season soak in, rebuild and use it as motivation.”

Junior linebacker Brock Locnikar, among those expected back, walked off the field smiling even after a 53-point loss, thinking of how powerful next year’s defensive unit could be.

“We can be as good of a team as Centennial if we just use our family bond, and keep going, and keep fighting,” Locnikar said. “I just feel like we didn’t put that out there (in the championship game), but I think next year if we play them or whoever, if we can smack them in the mouth early, we can really come through with it.”

Soaking in their last moments in the Saints’ white uniforms, seniors like tight end Luke Roberts reflected on how far this team had come.

“It’s just been such an awesome season. None of us expected to be here. Nobody else expected us to be here, so it’s tough to end like this but we’re so proud of the season overall,” Roberts said.

Flooded with sadness over the loss and happiness for memories his team gave him, Prelock expressed pride in how his players fought, including in the final game. Down by more than 40 points, the Saints scored their lone touchdown and celebrated as if the score were close.

Receiver Jake Smith and lineman Cade Bennett were the only returning starters.

“Now it’s a whole new group of starters, and the coaches have made it so that a lot of guys can step up,” Bennett said. “That’s important for us.”

Many of those who stepped up were underclassmen, especially on the defense that until it faced Centennial had been stout. They were not bad this season, and gaining this experience bodes well for next season, they believe.

Roberts said he hopes those who replace the seniors next season have paid attention to their work ethic and replicate it for another deep playoff run.

“Our class is really a lead-by-example type, so they just have been doing a great job of paying attention to us, and they just learn every day in practice,” Roberts said. “You can see the growth they’ve had over the season, and they’re only going to get better.”

Locnikar said the returning players are excited to get back to work, whether they are competing in other sports for the Saints or returning to the football practice field.

“This game symbolizes everything that I’ve been put through in my life, all the injuries and everything else that me or the other guys have persevered through, just being able to go through it and keep winning,” Locnikar said.

“Even though Centennial beat us, they just won a battle. They didn’t win the war.”