The most difficult season sometimes can be the year after a successful one.
"You worry about complacency," Hayden football coach Shawn Baumgartner said.
Last year -- one year after not winning a Western Slope League game --he Hayden football team went undefeated in the regular season. The Tigers bowed out early in the playoffs, but it did little to diminish the season they had.
This year, Hayden has to replace speed and talent on both sides of the ball.
"It's an opportunity for someone else to step up," Baumgartner said. "We had a good year last year, but you can't let good stand in the way of becoming great."
Six starters are back on both sides of the ball. Baumgartner has jostled people around, but the six -- Keenan Bruchez, Robert Culver, Brandon Ford, Isaac Haskins, Tyson Letlow and Tyson Sweetser -- are impact players.
"Teams will really be gunning for us," Baumgartner said. "But those are the games you want to be in."
The Tigers open the season at 7 p.m. Thursday against Moffat County's junior varsity at Hayden High School. Offensively, not much has changed for the Tigers, who have Bruchez and several linemen back.
Defensively, behind All-League linebacker Ford, Hayden may be even better this year than last, Baumgartner said.
The Tigers will use underclassmen out of necessity, but that's the way small-school football operates. Many of Hayden's upperclassmen earned valuable experience as freshmen or sophomores. It has been the relationship between the seniors and the new players that has Baumgartner particularly excited.
"The seniors have done an excellent job of leading by example and being positive," he said. "You see some of them taking younger kids aside before and after practice and working with them. The interest they show in the underclassmen really proves that they want this team to be successful. ... I've been so pleased to see these guys step into that role."
This year's seniors are Bruchez, Mark Dunn, Haskins, Letlow, new student Mike Pulliam, Sweetser, Tim Taylor and Kyle Woodley.
West Grand is the only league opponent that opens the season ranked. Last year, the Mustangs finished third and made the playoffs.
"Grand Valley was all sophomores last year," Baumgartner said. "Rangely's QB is back with a strong receiving core. Paonia will be better than last year. Meeker is always tough. There are six teams right there in the middle. It will come down to the middle of the season."
Hayden opens league play against Rangely on Sept. 16. The Tigers play Meeker, Grand Valley and West Grand in consecutive weeks in October.
-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org