CHOWCHILLA -- Devin Gaines breaks from his workout, studying the weight room with a lean and hungry look. He counts the bodies, listens for the sound of iron and grunts and gauges the level of activity.
This is his turf now, and he and teammates Brandon Beaton, Chad Neal and Alfredo Lopez protect it as if it were a rare jewel.
Should one of them feel the intensity or focus wane -- even for just a millisecond -- they pounce, tearing the scab off an old wound.
You guys remember the 21-20 heartbreaker to Central Valley Christian -- at home?
Or how about the double-digit losses to Washington Union, Liberty AND Dos Palos?
"It's time to get the job done," Gaines barks at his boys. "We don't want to have another season like last year."
One year after surging to a Valley championship, Chowchilla found itself two games below .500 and a million miles away from expectation last fall.
When the playoffs began, the defending champion stayed home to ready itself for a long, cold winter.
A self-imposed punishment.
"There was no leadership on that team," Gaines said. "It was hard. We knew we could do it, but there was no one to lead. It seemed like everyone wanted to make themselves better and not the team.
"I was looking for someone to lead. I was only a sophomore. I needed that leadership. That whole year, I was looking for someone to help me."
Gaines is no longer the timid, soft-spoken sophomore who, at times, appeared lost and overwhelmed in the locker room and on the field.
He's now The Ringleader, and the junior playmaker has an eerie promise for those on Chowchilla's fall schedule:
Be ready for a thrilling spree.
"Because of his transition to varsity and being the starting quarterback, there was already a tremendous pressure, athletically speaking," Chowchilla coach Jon Henson said. "But to have asked him to take a leadership role, too, would have proven pretty difficult for a young guy. So we didn't push it.
"This year, he's taken it upon himself to be more vocal. A big part of that is experience; experience breeds confidence. He knows he can compete at this level. He knows what to expect. He knows he's strong. And it's starting to show."
The change in Gaines is both physical and psychological.
He's grown a half-inch and packed on 20 more pounds, making his 5-foot-9 frame better suited to handle the rigors of the North Sequoia League.
More importantly, he'll no longer be trapped under center.
Thomas Flanagan, a baseball player with a natural throwing motion, is the now the quarterback of Chowchilla's tricky Double Wing offense.
Gaines finds himself in a familiar, more comfortable role -- wingback.
It's the same position his cousin, Fred, a former Cal Poly recruit, played so well for Chowchilla in 2008, when he rushed for 1,008 yards and totaled 17 touchdowns.
Next to mayor, wingback might be the most coveted position in Chowchilla.
"My whole life I've been a wingback. Varsity needed a quarterback, so I decided to give it a try. They put me to the test," said Devin, who completed just 45 percent of his passes for 553 yards and 11 TDs to seven interceptions.
"I'm kind of excited. This year, I'll get to run it like I used to; I'll get to run it more than five times a game."
With a deeper roster, fresh blood in new positions and a change in attitude, Chowchilla hopes to leave 2009 in the rearview.
"There's lot of regret," Henson said. "We left too much on the field. It's not anyone's fault but our own. This year's class has taken it upon themselves to do something about it."
And they take their cues from The Ringleader, Devin Gaines.
This is his team now.>