At some high schools, a 5-5 record and a trip to the postseason wouldn't be an unacceptable football season.
Phillipsburg, which did just that in 2016, is not one of those schools.
This is a program whose goals don't ever change. As second-year head coach Frank Duffy put it: "Goals are always: 1) Beat Easton; 2) Win States; 3) Win division (Mid-State 38 Delaware Division)."
The Stateliners didn't achieve any of those goals last season, as they went 3-2 in the division behind Bridgewater-Raritan at 5-0; fell in the first round of the NJSIAA North 2 Group 4 playoffs; and, most painfully, saw an 11-point lead slip away in a 24-14 loss to Easton on Thanksgiving.
What lessons can Duffy and the Stateliners take away from 2016 to make 2017 the kind of successful season Phillipsburg is used to?
There seem to be two big conclusions.
One is better offensive balance, which the return of very promising junior quarterback Jack Stagaard will help with. In 2016, Phillipsburg depended on its ground game almost to the point of exclusion. "We have to have better balance and we will have better balance," Duffy said.
Two, more consistency of effort. Several Stateliner players said that too often, they didn't manage four complete quarters in every game, and they fell too easily to adversity.
"We have to mentally strong throughout the season," said co-captain and tight end/linebacker Sean Morro. "We have to start fast and finish fast. Last season we had trouble bouncing back from bad plays or mistakes. We have to get everybody in the program mentally tougher. We need everybody to keep growing, keep moving ahead and have guys step up."
Why Phillipsburg fans should be excited
1. The return of Stagaard. Perhaps the most significant play of the 2016 Stateliner season came when the sophomore quarterback was lost for the season at Hunterdon Central. Stagaard was turning into a very exciting talent at QB when he went down. Healthy and with a year of observing and learning, Stagaard should be ready for a breakout season.
2. Duffy, a man who lives and breathes Phillipsburg football, has a year of experience as head coach. The first year on any job can be a learning experience -- and Duffy said he learned a lot.
3. Senior linebacker/tight end Sean Morro, who was named the outstanding defensive player of the Easton/Phillipsburg game, could emerge as the next dominant force in garnet and gray. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he's attracting some Division I recruiting interest. Morro's athleticism, size and savvy could lift him to an all-area, all-state kind of season.
4. In senior RB/CB Stephen Davis and junior back/wide receiver Sterling Walker-Sutton, Phillipsburg has two exciting playmakers with speed and moxie. Neither are especially big, but they boast all kinds of big-play potential.
5. A powerful and aggressive defensive front group, led by co-captains Morro, Patrick Sharpe (NT), Zach Leong (DE) and Nick Josselyn (DT). should allow the Stateliners to control the line of scrimmage and put a major crimp in opposition ground games.
Why Phillipsburg fans should be worried
1. Who's going to run the ball? The Stateliners want to control the ball and grind teams down, but Garrett Boures, Danny Fisher and Ja'Quan Jones took almost all of 2016's rushing yards with them when they collected their diplomas. Duffy likes the potential replacements but there's very little experience.
2. Duffy wants Phillipsburg to be more balanced on offense, but what happens if Stagaard gets hurt again? When he was out last fall the passing game went with him. Is there depth at quarterback?
3. Brendan Grube was a trustworthy a placekicker as the area had in 2016. Without him, the Stateliners may struggle to put as many points in the board.
4. Robert Melise and Zach Troxell made the Phillipsburg defensive line fearsome at times in 2016. The Franklin win came via a defensive score they provided. They are the kind of players it can be very hard to replace.
5. Phillipsburg's backs on both sides of the ball are talented and fast and athletic -- and small-ish. The Mid-State 38 seems to abound in 6-foot-4 wideouts and defensive backs. Mismatch problems could be an issue.
Duffy pointed to five spots where time is up for grabs: running back, wide receiver, cornerback, punter and kicker. Senior Stephen Davis and junior Sterling Walker-Sutton will certainly see a lot of snaps at running back, cornerback and wide receiver, but Duffy would love to develop some depth at those spots.
Training camp emphasis
Phillipsburg's co-captains said they wanted to stress overall consistency in games and at practices.
Duffy wants to work on a special teams unit that suffered major graduation losses, and was perhaps at fault for several 2016 losses (notably Hillsborough and Easton).
Also, Phillipsburg needs a more balanced offense than 2016's ground-bound unit.
While Duffy likes what he sees on both of his lines, he said developing depth will be crucial in training camp.
Frank Duffy on 2017
"The way we practice is our edge. We don't want anybody in the Lehigh Valley or the state of New Jersey practicing harder than we do. We can't practice very long the way we do, going so up-tempo, but we really focus when we practice. Preparation and practice is where our edge comes from."
Senior co-captain Zach Leong on 2017
"I think we have to be more consistent. Last year I feel we were not consistent enough for the whole game. When we started to falter, one bad would become a touchdown. We want to be consistent with 100 percent intensity over the whole game."
Jr. WR/S Nasir Ball
Sr. OT/DE Jaleel Boothman
Sr. CB/RB Stephen Davis
Sr. DT/OG Nick Josselyn
Sr. DE/OG Zach Leong
Sr. TE/OLB Sean Morro
Jr, QB Jack Stagaard
Jr. CB/WR Sterling Walker-Sutton
Jr. LB/FB Mark Zgoda
Sr. DE Jalen Boothman, DE, 12
Sr. OLB/TE Jevon Boothman, OLB/TE, 12
Sr. CB Justyce Branch
Jr. OG/DE Matthew Cherry
Sr. OT/NG David Capitini
Jr. OL/DT Ryan Fisher
Jr. RB Joseph Green
Jr. LB/C Chris Gurneak
Sr. QB/DB Adam Pursel
Sr. LS John Sabo
Sr. C/NG Patrick Sharpe
Sr. OT/DE Elian Telford
Jr. FB/DT Jeffrey Vitale
So. WR/CB Christian Chiulli
So. LB/FB Bobby Coury
So. WR/S Tommy Coury
So. OLB/RB Isaiah Craighead
So. K Michael Gomez
Jr. OLB/TE Joseph Kowalczyk
So. WR Ray Poremba
Jr. DL Carmelo Rivera
So. RB/LB Abdul Salahuddin
Jr. WR Raymond Stem
Sr. RB/LB Frank Stettner
Phillipsburg team basics
League: Mid-State 38 Delaware Division
Classification: North 2 Group 4
Coach: Frank Duffy (2nd year, 5-5)
2016 record: 5-5, 3-2 division
Home: Maloney Stadium, Memorial Parkway, Phillipsburg
Brad Wilson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bradwsports. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.