For the past two seasons, the Palisade High School football team has knocked on the door of the Class 3A state championship game. Both times, they were turned away by Palmer Ridge.
As Joe Ramunno enters his seventh season in his second stint at Palisade, he looks to get the Bulldogs over the hump for their first state title since 2003.
Palisade enters this season ranked No. 3 by CHSAA, meaning the Bulldogs are once again expected to make a deep playoff run.
"I know there's great teams out there, those teams up there in the rankings," Ramunno said. "We know it's going to be a challenge. You can't get caught up, and our guys have been good about that. They don't get caught up in rankings. Rankings don't do a lot. They're fun for everybody else to look at, but if you start reading that, you'll be out of that spot in no time if you put a lot of credence in that.
"We've been beaten by Palmer Ridge, who's No. 1, so we've got a lot of work to do to get better."
If Palisade is going to pull that off, it's going to take another monster season from senior quarterback Cam Tucker.
Last year, Tucker completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 530 yards and six touchdowns to four picks. Where he made the most noise was on the ground, showing command of the Bulldogs' triple option/flexbone attack with 1,662 yards and a staggering 28 scores.
If Tucker takes another step forward in his final season, Palisade should find itself deep in the 3A postseason again.
"Tuck's been doing this for quite a while," Ramunno said. "We'd love to be at about 60-40 (rushing to passing ratio) but we'll probably never get to that. We'll be more of a 70-30. But our whole thing is dictated on the fact that you have to be better at what they give you. If they're loading the box, we've got to be able to throw some passing stuff at it.
"Our heart and soul has always been to run the football."
Palisade returns three of its five starting offensive linemen from a year ago, with the other two bringing some varsity experience to the table, so Ramunno has no reason to expect any kind of drop-off up front.
The coach believes the unit's experience will lead to cohesion, which will be especially important as the Bulldogs have to replace all their skill players not named Tucker.
Gone are running backs Jason Bruce (865 yards, 8 TDs), Cole Tscherter (569 yards, 5 TDs) and Sebo Campbell (306 yards, 5 TDs). All four players who caught passes last year are gone, with three of them graduating and Joseph Alejo, last year's leader in receiving yards and scores, transferring to Bear Creek for his senior year.
Ramunno is used to plugging new players into his system and still seeing it flourish, and with Tucker taking snaps behind a veteran line, he expects similar results this year.
"We've got a lot of guys challenging and a lot of guys in position," Ramunno said. "It's kind of a system thing. These guys learned a lot from Sebo and from Jason, so we've got some guys competing, which is good, because we're going to have competition at the running back spot. If they'll block, they'll get the ball sometimes."
Ramunno is particularly enthused by the potential of his receiving corps.
"Jayce Bush had a great offseason, good summer camp. We're looking forward to what he does," Ramunno said. "Caden Clark is a kid that's back who played last year as well, but he's going to take on more of a role this year. We've got Jaden Spears, another kid who played a lot of ball last year, but he wasn't the premier guy because Jason Bruce took those touches. Jaden Jordan is another young man who comes to us, and he's a great talent.
"We have some skilled kids who can really catch the ball. Now, it's a matter of getting in the right situation and delivering."
Defensively, Palisade has some retooling to do, especially since many of the offensive starters who left were two-way players.
"We've got a lot of holes to fill," Ramunno said. "A lot of our guys played both ways, so we've got to work both sides of the ball with all these guys to get them ready. We're going to be young there, though, especially after Joseph moved to Denver. Replacing him, we've got a guy like Gabe Harrison who's going to step in, a guy who played a lot of football last year."
The leader of the Bulldogs' blitz is back. Carl Cox, who had 104 tackles last season, returns to anchor the linebacker corps from the middle.
Palisade's experience on the line of scrimmage extends to its defense as well. Logan Harris, last year's sack leader with three, returns, along with Matthew Wethington and Julio Rodriguez.
Any inexperienced players on the roster are going to mature into their roles quickly.
They can't afford not to, as every team on Palisade's nonconference schedule made the playoffs last year.
The Bulldogs open at Durango, host Green Mountain, face Central at Stocker Stadium, host 4A No. 5 Montrose and visit Evergreen before starting conference play. Those nonconference foes combined to go 37-17 last season.
Ramunno likes the baptism-by-fire approach. He believes it helps forge Palisade into a team that can get past a potential rematch with Palmer Ridge.
"You make it all positive, because with the rankings and RPI and polls and all that stuff, to get seeded, you have to win your league and have a good resume and good RPI and all that," Ramunno said. "You've got to play tough teams to get your RPI up, so it's a win-win there. We know each week will be a battle and we have to go one at a time."