Coming into the 2003 season, the Moffat County High School football team leadership council, a group of nine seniors picked by the coaching staff as a group of captains, had learned a lot about each other and the coaching staff.
For instance, defensive coordinator Lance Scranton was what they referred to as "a hippie" in high school and special teams coach Chris Dralle really enjoys large campfires.
What do those things have to do with football?
"It's important that we build a team feeling before we hit the field," head coach Kip Hafey. "That started after our last game last year and continued through the summer."
Part of the team building was done on a summer campout with the coaches and the leadership council. An experience that the nine seniors who made the trip said built more trust and confidence than any practice.
"We have each others' backs more this year," said senior wide receiver/half back Cody Palmer. "There's a feeling in practice that we're in it together."
The leadership council of Palmer, Aaron Sanchez, Nick Lee, Blaine Kawcak, Nick Goodenow, Georgie Raftopoulos, Jason Mosher, Kelvin Grinolds and Shea Carr are returning starters from a team that made it to the Class 3A state playoffs last year and lost in the first round to Pueblo County.
In the second year of Kip Hafey's program, the expectations are higher than to just make it into the playoffs.
"They not only want to make it to the playoffs, they want to get a home game and win in the playoffs," Hafey said. "We're so much further along this year than last at this moment, it's a good goal."
To earn a home field playoff game, the Bulldogs will need to finish in the top two of the Western Slope Conference. A conference that boasts the returning Class 3A runner up in Palisade (preseason ranked No. 2 in Rocky Mountain News, No. 1 in Denver Post) and the top-ranked team in the regular season last year, Rifle (ranked seventh in RMN and eighth in the DP).
The talk of expectations can sometimes put pressure on teams to perform well. After four years of not being in the playoffs, there were few expectations on last year's team. This year, the pressure is in the form of expectations.
"The way we've looked in practice and in our scrimmage, there should be higher expectations," Hafey said. "They have that attitude now that we have higher expectations for ourselves than anyone else."
Despite a sign in the weight room that reads "one at a time" to take each game and focus on it individually, the increased levels of confidence, expectations and ability have made it hard for the Bulldogs not to think about the post season.
"We're looking one game at a time," Mosher said. "But it's hard not to think about the state playoffs."
With the manpower they have returning who can blame them for looking ahead?
The 9-5-9 Attack (nine players, five yards from the ball, 90 percent of the time) defense returns seven starters from a squad that led Class 3A in interceptions and sacks last year. It held conference foes to 13.6 points per game. With the return of Goodenow, first-team conference selection at defensive end, and Carr, a second team selection at linebacker, the blue and white figure to have a feared defense.
"When people see us on tape, they are going to have a hard time to find a way through our defense," said Carr, the defensive captain. "It will be hard to point out a major flaw."
On the other side of the ball will be Sanchez, a first-team conference selection at quarter back and wide receiver/halfback Palmer, The two will be guarded by an offensive line that returns four of five starters.
Several skill positions players were lost to graduation and the Bulldogs have shuffled around their backfield several times in the first couple of weeks to find a combination to replace halfbacks Joe Padon and Eric Bastow. Junior Scott Garoutte will get a rare chance to play on both sides of the ball in Hafey's platooning scheme as fullback/linebacker. Palmer, junior halfback Kellan Moore, sophomore Reid Hanneman and junior Caleb Keadle also will come out of the backfield. Sanchez, who ran for more than 500 yards last year, will join the halfbacks and fullbacks.
"We are young in the backfield," Hafey said. "It is where we are the least experienced. We're going to need some younger guys to step it up."
Sanchez, the offensive captain, said he likes what he has seen so far.
"We have three extra formations and at least 10 to15 more plays already this year," he said. "This offense will have a lot more options than last year."
The Bulldogs will get a chance to measure their improvement Friday at home against Green River, Wyo., a team that handed them their worst loss of the season last year, 44-27. The game starts at 7 p.m. at Moffat County High School.