The 2017 season didn't end the way the Fruita Monument High School football team wanted.
After winning its first conference championship since 2002 with an undefeated regular season, plenty of the Wildcats' key returners are still smarting over their 39-34 loss to Vista Ridge in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs. The players pointed to all sorts of reasons, everything from a lack of preparation to a lack of execution.
This season, paying attention to those "little things," as the Wildcats call them, could make a difference in how Fruita's 2018 season turns out.
"There's definitely still a bad taste in our mouths after that last game," first-year Fruita head coach Cameron Ross said. "We left that game and ended our season feeling like we didn't accomplish everything we had set out to accomplish. So this season, our driving force and one of our core values is to finish.
"We want to finish everything we do. We want to finish the regular season strong. We want to finish as far as we can in the postseason. We don't want to look back on this season and think there's something we could have done differently or could have done something better. (Finishing has) been a driving force for us in the weight room and in the summer, and we're taking it into the season as well."
Fruita found a way to finish the regular season as one of the top teams in its classification last year. The Wildcats averaged a 4A-best 328.6 rushing yards per game thanks in part to Ross, who coached the team's linemen under former coach Todd Casebier. Casebier took a job as Castle View's head coach in the offseason.
The Wildcats also allowed only 12.9 points per game in the regular season but, the players said, that success came against a schedule that didn't prepare them enough for the postseason. Not so this year: The Wildcats open at Pueblo West, a Class 4A semifinalist last year and have 4A playoff qualifiers Chatfield and Standley Lake on their conference schedule along with Grand Junction, Central and Montrose in nonconference play.
"We weren't really prepared last season, but this season our schedule is going to challenge us in every way," senior defensive end Kaden Jolley said. "That's going to help us with our intensity and help to prepare us for the postseason."
Lost to graduation was senior tailback Braeden Graham, whose 1,590 rushing yards through the regular season were among Class 4A's best. Also surpassing the 1,000-yard barrier was current fullback Treyton Queen, who had 1,118 yards and 14 touchdowns on 171 carries. Running behind him will be tailbacks Jacob Burns (426 yards) and Denim Luster (131 yards).
They'll run behind an offensive line that last year weighed more than 1,300 pounds and, this year, returns three starters: Casey Hudson, Trey Dickerson and Travis Heath.
Returning at quarterback is Zach Rush, who has gotten some interest from the University of Northern Colorado after attending a summer camp in Greeley. Ross said Rush has shown great improvement in his throwing mechanics, which likely will benefit a receiving corps that includes returning starter Cason Gisner (19 receptions, 424 yards).
Defensively, Jolley (60 tackles, four fumble recoveries) and linebacker Delson Pyland (62 tackles, team-high 6.5 sacks) return. Pyland is one of nine starters — including two-way players — returning this season.
"I think we had a great season last year but, by ending it the way we did, it shows exactly what we didn't do, which was finish," Gisner said. "This year we want to finish games, finish plays, finish reps, finish everything so we can avoid that kind of finish again."