ATWATER — Armando Gauger vivdly remembers the first time he touched the sign before walking out onto Falcon Field for his first varsity home game.
Forged in the tradition of Notre Dame's famed "Play Like A Champion Today," it's a simple piece of rectangular wood, painted blue with white lettering that reads "Believe."
It serves as a reminder of the Atwater football players that have come before and an inspiration to the current Falcons before they take their home field for battle.
"I remember touching it on the way out of the locker room for my first varsity home game and the fire being lit," Gauger said. "It's very cool and I'm proud to help carry on that tradition."
Atwater head coach Bob Valladao said the sign came into existance during the 1999 season. The team had T-shirts made up with "I Believe" printed on them. After a year out of service, Valladao said he hung the sign back up in the home locker room when he became the team's offensive line coach in 2001.
It's been a part of Falcon lore ever since.
"We do our pregame meals like everyone else and we put the Falcon decals on the night before our first game every year, but touching the "Believe" sign on the way out of the locker room is probably the most signifcant tradition to the kids," Valladao said. "They know the guys that have come before them and touched it, and they are honored to be a part of that."
Believe might be a good mantra for an Atwater program looking to take the next step in its development. The Falcons are coming off of a 6-5 season and their first playoff appearance since 2009. Now they'll try to make it to the postseason in consecutive years for the first time in Valladao's tenure.
"The last couple years we've played pretty well in the nonconference games and then stumbled when we get to league," Valladao said. "We can't be peaking at Week 5. We want to peak at the end of league and that's what we're focused on."
The Falcons certainly have enough returning pieces to garner the rest of the Central California Conference's attention.
Nathan Duran proved he could run the show, splitting time under center last year as a sophomore. He'll battle for time at quarterback with Ryan Sanchez.
He'll have proven speed and skill around him in the forms of Ronald Evans (RB), Jessie Molina (RB), Isaiah Washington (WR), Vic Tiscareno (RB) and some power in the form of fullbacks JoJo Ochoa and Tony Romo.
Linebackers will again be the strength of the defense, with Gauger, Ochoa and Romo wreaking havoc. Evans, Washington and Sanchez lead the secondary.
The question marks entering the year will be Atwater's two junior-heavy lines. Ivan Martinez will anchor a young offensive side, while Valladao will go with a rotation on the defensive end.
"We know we've got some big shoes to fill in, but a lot of us played a lot last year and are confident coming into the season," Ochoa said. "We feel like league is there for the taking. It's going to be a tough fight every week, but that's just going to keep us motivated."