John F. Russell: Tigers on top, started humbly

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Last year at this time, Hayden High School football coach Shawn Baumgartner was trying to find a silver lining in his team's less-than-impressive season.

"I think we did some things in these final few games that we can build on next year," the coach said after his team lost its regular-season finale to the Rangely Panthers, 46-13.

No doubt the words were lost on his players, who were desperately trying to erase the memories of a 2-7 season in which the Tigers finished dead last in the Western Slope League, at 0-7.

A lot can change in 12 months -- as the coach, the team and all of Hayden have discovered.

This year, the Tigers have one of the strongest teams in the state and have brought renewed energy to the town and the school they represent.

It's funny how a league title and an undefeated record has a way of sweeping memories such as last season's record into the history books, where they belong.

This week, I'm sure the whole town will come out to celebrate the Tigers' first playoff appearance since 2001 -- and first undefeated season in recent memory -- and honor a team that has risen from the ashes to become a state contender.

I think that most high school sports programs place too much emphasis on winning, but the Tigers' run to the playoffs has enough of the classic ingredients to inspire a Walt Disney movie.

The team's bleak performance last season and its turnaround in 2004 have all the heart-warming moments of the "Bad News Bears" with the grit of "Rocky." It's the kind of tale that will bring a lump to your throat.

It's enough to make a veteran football coach turned athletics director, Hayden's Kevin Klecker, leave a goofy message on his answering machine that simply says, "Kevin Kleckler, Goooo Tigers!"

Yeah, it's sappy, but it comes from the heart.

You see, Kleckler has been on winning and losing sides during his years at Hayden. As a head coach, he helped Hayden football teams advance to the playoffs in 1996, 2000 and 2001. He was with the team when they advanced to the second round in 2000, only to lose at home to Limon in a packed-stands quarterfinal game that left his players cold and disappointed.

He is expecting a similar turnout Saturday when the Tigers host a first-round game to open the playoffs -- but he and the rest of Hayden are hoping for a different outcome.

In the end, it will not matter to me if the Tigers win a state title or lose along the road. Just like Kleckler, it's the team's heart that has impressed me more than any single victory.

Most of the players on this team have proven their characters in victory and defeat. They stuck together in good times and bad.

It's the kind of story that makes high school athletics worth covering, and everyone in Hayden should be proud that many members of this team managed to find a silver lining in 2003, in what many people might call a disappointing season.

Go Tigers.

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