MARSHALL -- A group of white knights last season changed everything.

They weren't the 1990 Class 5A Division I championship team or even the 2004 or 2005 Class 4A Division I runners-up, but they touched the community like their predecessors by erasing a combined 6-25 record between 2011 and 2013.

Even better, there's still time for them before handing the Marshall program over to the next set of players.

Permitted by the University Interscholastic League to begin organized practice Monday, they themselves started out to become the team. A banner team.

"When I got here, the expectation was we were going to be everybody's homecoming," third-year head coach Clint Harper said. "That was the joke, and it was real. We had five road games and we were five homecomings. We're not anybody's homecoming this year. That just kind of shows you the expectations for us and the people around us. Hopefully, I think they've realized that the Mavericks are back."

Senior defensive tackle Antonio Washington won Defensive MVP at the ETSN.fm + APEC Football Recruiting Combine in May. (Mark Martin, ETSN.fm)

It was an awful day for a practice. As the sun worked its way to the top of Maverick Stadium's surrounding forest at 7 p.m., a protected weather instrument at the Harrison County Airport gave off a reading of 106 degrees.

The guys were out there working nevertheless. Out to prove a sneak-in to the playoffs in 2013 and last year's more solid 6-4 regular season record with a trip to the area round is just the bare bones foundation.

This season is more about the pie in the sky with 16 returning starters who either witnessed or were actually young victims of the Mavericks' worst days.

Marshall's two-headed quarterback attack of senior Justin Hart and junior Cameron Haller is back. So are critical skill players on the offensive side.

Senior safety Micahh Smith -- who owns a Texas State offer among some FCS invitations -- gives opposition something to think about up top. Defensive lineman Antonio Washington won the ETSN.fm + APEC Football Recruiting Combine's overall Defensive Most Valuable Player Award in May.

There's real substance to the dream.

"I want to win state," Hart said. "I want to go to the big dance this year. If we don't get to do that, I'm going to be disappointed. I think we're all in. The senior class has worked really hard to get to this point."

Senior quarterback Justin Hart, equipped with a GoPro camera to help in the film review session, has seen it all as a three-year starter for Marshall. (Mark Martin, ETSN.fm)

Hart has started games since he was a freshman. He was part of a 1-9 team while getting his first significant minutes against Louisiana powerhouse C.E. Byrd and his first start against Longview of all teams.

Harper joined the mix in time for the 2013 season. He left a very comfortable head gig at Leander to take on a program that had run out of answers.

Together, the team went 3-7 and reached the playoffs by winning the right district games.

Last season was the breakthrough. The Mavs doubled their win total in the regular season with more matured talent, toppled a very athletic Nacogdoches team in the bi-district round and closed the year with a competitive loss to Dallas South Oak Cliff and its 13 Division I college football recruits.

Monday's practice broke with the motto "unfinished business."

"It's a lot of work," Harper said with an exhausted laugh. "They say Rome wasn't built in a day. There's a lot of truth to that. These kids have worked extremely hard to get where they're at. They worked extremely hard to get to the playoffs last season and upset Nacogdoches. A lot of the kids weren't satisfied. We thought we could have gone further last year, so they've come back really eager to work."

Marshall opens the season with games against Royse City and Crandall following a high-profile scrimmage against Tyler Lee.

Texarkana (Ark.) Arkansas High, which will already be hardened by games against Texas High and Liberty-Eylau, headlines the non-district slate before the Mavs hop into District 15-5A competiton.

"Longview, to me, is the frontrunner until you beat them," Harper said. "Until somebody knocks them off the plateau, they're the king of the mountain. That's what we're going to try to do this next year. It's a challenge because they've got great athletes and are very well-coached. Coach John King and his staff do a great job.

"Then you've got Texas High, and they've got state championships. Coach Barry Norton, again, another great football coach with great athletes. Hallsville and Sulphur Springs, they're state champions. You look at our overall roster, from top to bottom, there are state champions all over the district. I think Pine Tree is going to be better this year and Mount Pleasant will be better. You cannot take a Friday night off."

There are a lot of challenges to overcome before fathoming another playoff appearance.

But the internal heavy lifting is over. A healthy culture is back.

And only one homecoming game is on the schedule. Marshall's own.

"This has all been a process," Smith said. "We're going to keep working really hard because, in the end, your legacy has to be more than what it started. It's not where you start but where you finish. That's just how I feel about it."

Senior safety Micahh Smith headlines all Mavericks players with an offer from Texas State. (Mark Martin, ETSN.fm)