Steamboat Springs With two state titles, three runner-up finishes, and six trips to the state semifinals in the books, the days of beat-up equipment and tattered uniforms seem like a distant memory in West Grand.
Coach Chris Brown, who took over the program 23 years ago, attributes the success to prioritizing accountability on and off the field and surrounding himself with quality assistants and kids who love to play football.
"We wanted to be a first-class outfit in every way and you don't just do that overnight," Brown said. "There was no real junior varsity program and we had to build the numbers up."
One of Brown's assistant coaches has been with him since 1980. Another has been with Brown since 1985. The numbers are up, and at 8-0 overall, the Mustangs are poised to make a legitimate run at another state championship.
At least that's what Soroco coach Gary Heide believes. The Rams will wrap up their 2002 season at 3 p.m. today at West Grand Field. There will be no playoffs for Soroco (1-7 overall, 0-6 in league) this season, but that wasn't the Rams' realistic goal.
Heide is a first-year coach in a situation not unlike what Brown encountered nearly 23 years ago. Soroco is back in the league after a two-year hiatus from a varsity schedule. Numbers prevented the Rams from being competitive with many teams, let alone West Grand.
After watching film in preparation for this afternoon's game, Brown sees promising things developing in South Routt.
"In the past, Soroco used to have more kids out and even when they didn't, they had four or five tough kids," Brown said. "They hit a dry spell, and it's stayed that way. I think they have the right guy coaching. If they're going to turn it around, Gary's the guy."
Heide and his staff of Chad Holloway and volunteers Don Alperti and Jeremy Allen know they don't have the overall talent to go nose to nose with the Mustangs, but Heide believes Soroco can be victorious in ways other than the final score.
"They're an awful tough team," Heide said. "But I think our team has really made progress coming into the league this year and 90 percent of that has to do with heart and trying. It's impossible to lose that going there."
In fact, Brown said the heart and effort the Rams play with stands out the most. Anytime a team refuses to quit, it has a chance, but West Grand isn't about to give Soroco any chances. It is on a mission extending past today's game.
With a strong offensive line, two premier players at quarterback and running back, a large tight end and talent on the defensive line and at middle linebacker, the Mustangs have the potential to play deep into the playoffs.
Brown said by midnight on Saturday the coaching staff would have scouted all top 10 teams in Class A in person. In years when West Grand's finish in league play is uncertain, Brown and the staff scout the jerseys off their league foes.
In a season like this, where a playoff bid was all but guaranteed weeks ago, the Mustangs coaches have traveled hundreds of miles to see possible upcoming opponents live.
"Everyone we've seen we can play with, but you can lose if you don't play well," Brown said. "This year we're throwing more because we have more receivers, but we always run the option. You have to have a balance of both. Good teams can take away one."
Even better teams can stop both, and Brown seems confident his team will show up ready to play against Soroco. Today's game is the finale for the Rams this season and the last for seniors Josh Iacovetto, Dustin Neelis and Tyson Gilleland. Iacovetto and Neelis will be sidelined with injuries sustained earlier this year.
Heide said one of this season's goals was to pick up at least one league win. Narrow losses to Plateau Valley and Hayden prevented that from happening thus far. The Rams have one last shot today against the Mustangs, but it will be the longest one of the year.
"I've said at least once that you're playing a great team and program, but every time you make a great play or make a great hit you've made a great play against a top-notch team," Heide said. "The kids will remember that. I don't want them thinking we lay down. I told the boys we're playing next year's team.
"I told them to play like it is next year and it's a championship game. Next year I expect to be there."