Few coaches in the history of prep football in Colorado have had as much success as Mike Sirko.
When Grand Junction hired him in 2016, he had 244 wins, the seventh-most in state history, and he had transformed every program he coached.
The transformation process is taking its time at Grand Junction, as the Tigers have gone 7-23 the past three years.
The 2019 season could represent a step forward, as Sirko's team is his most experienced.
"I feel like this team has a bunch of true believers. They're a group of guys who truly believe they can get something done this year," Sirko said. "They've been with me since the start, so they've lasted through some tough times, and they understand how hellacious some of these teams are and have been in some great fights. It's their time to take their turn."
Grand Junction is returning eight starters on offense and seven on defense, the most returning starters of Sirko's time with the school.
Those starters, as well as others who will finally get their shot at starting this fall, are fully integrated into the team's pistol offensive and 4-2-5 defensive schemes.
One of the team's key returning starters is senior dual-threat quarterback AJ Mariz, who threw for four touchdowns and ran for six more last year after converting from wide receiver.
"Last year was his first year playing quarterback," Sirko said. "We just didn't have anyone in the program who wanted to play the role or didn't want to come out for it, but he took it upon himself because we needed a solid performer and a good kid to do it."
With a year of quarterback play under his belt, Mariz spent the summer working on his mechanics as a passer to give the Tigers' offense an extra dimension.
"He's been throwing the ball a great deal this summer and doing strength and speed work," Sirko said. "We had a summer program with kids coming in for four days a week for 32 summer workouts and he was there for almost all of them. When he wasn't there, he was doing something for his football mechanics."
Mariz has been a key member of the Tigers' secondary in the past, but they have other experienced players in the defensive backfield, allowing him to narrow his concentration to offense.
Of course, running the ball comes first at Grand Junction, as the Tigers prefer to utilize their pistol for power. Fortunately for Mariz, he isn't going to have to shoulder the load.
Senior Carson Loveridge had a breakout 2018 season, rushing for 827 yards with three scores.
Loveridge has the skills to be a difference-maker again, but Sirko likes all of his options in the rushing attack.
"We didn't really unleash AJ last year, but he's going to carry the ball more than he did to give Loveridge some more opportunities," Sirko said. "With him and AJ and Dillon Smith, who's been playing at Z and running a lot of jet stuff, and our fullback, another AJ (Dougherty), started last year, all four of those guys could make a difference running the football."
Smith, another key senior, is one of the most dynamic athletes on the roster. He hauled in 14 passes for 207 yards and a score, rushed for 117 yards on only 16 carries and averaged more than 20 yards per kickoff return last season.
"He's a hybrid," Sirko said. "He'll be a big-play receiver for us, he's got power, he's got speed and he's really coachable and allows us to do some things different with him because he wants to do whatever he can to help us win as a football team. He'll return some punts for us, a whole bunch of things."
Grand Junction features 21 seniors, nearly twice the size of Sirko's previous biggest senior class, which was also his first (11).
"We've played teams with 30 and 40 seniors. But for us? This is a marquee senior class when it comes to numbers," Sirko said. "Any time you want to build a program back up, sometimes, you have to take a few lumps along the way. The scheduling causes issues, too. When they have senior-laden teams and your team is mostly juniors and sophomores, you're not winning a lot of those football games. You learn a lot about character. Those are character-builders."
Sirko's still laying a foundation at Grand Junction, but his expectations for 2019 are higher than they've been at any other point during his time with the school. He has his quarterback, a running back who could push for 1,000 yards and veterans on both sides of the ball.
This season could be when "character-builders" turn into resume-builders for the Class 4A playoffs.
"We take it one game at a time," Sirko said. "We have such a tough schedule. My first year, we played three of the (teams that advanced to the) final four, and this schedule isn't as tough as that, but we still have to play all our rivals first and then our league, so we take it one game at a time.
"If you ever look ahead, you're going to lose football games."
Sirko believes he has a potentially playoff-caliber squad, one that can overcome a schedule that still presents hurdle after hurdle.
"The playoffs are a goal, winning the league's a goal, but you have to take it week-by-week because we have so many fish to fry before we get to the games that really count to go to the playoffs," Sirko said. "You have to find out where you're at. But I really believe our offseason work ethic and this class of seniors can help us get over the hump."