There's a hurt lingering in the chest of the Bennett football team.
Yes, they made the state semifinals last season, a triumph for the school. Yes, it was the best showing in program history. And, yes, as senior Montana Rodwell said, it was a pretty cool experience.
But if you head east on I-70 from the metro area, pass the airport, take a left before the Kiowa exit, and stare out over a brilliant green field where 40 white jerseys are practicing, you can sense it: There's a fire here. It's burning inside these kids.
Semifinals are not enough. Not here.
Which is undoubtedly ambitious. Bennett has never appeared in a state football championship game, let alone win a championship. It is not among the recent titans of 1A — Strasburg, Buena Vista, Paonia, to name a few. Not yet, anyway. But that's exactly where Bennett's expectations lie.
"State," Rodwell said simply. "That's always the goal, isn't it?"
To a player, at least the returning ones, that hurt lingers. They remember that Class 1A semifinal game, a 34-24 loss to Meeker.
"We were one game away," said Jarett Brown, a senior defensive end and fullback. "That just hit us deep in the stomach."
"Every time I come out here," Trever Miller, a junior, said after practice on Friday morning, "there's still that little pain that gets me up and going, makes me want to do my best every play."
Added Alec Packard, a senior lineman: "We've got that sour taste in our mouth now."
When Bennett stepped on that semifinal field, the nerves were evident, players said.
"We didn't know what to expect," running back Mason Wakeham said. "We had never made it that far."
But this season? Now they've reached that stage.
"Now we know what to expect," Wakeham said. "I think we know what we need to do, how we need to fix it."
The result is that spring and summer workouts were highly attended. Coach Rick Jacoby, entering his tenth season, said that allowed the staff to install their system earlier than usual, which in turn led to a first week of practice that was "one of the best we've had in a long time."
"Where this week usually has been a lot of teaching," Jacoby said, "I feel like this year it's been a lot of sharpening."
The state has taken notice. Bennett is ranked No. 3 in CHSAANow.com's preseason 1A poll.
Seniors Rocky Lechman and Jesse Rodriquez — both quarterback/running back hybrids — were first-team all-state last season. Jadyn Brown, a two-way lineman, made the second team along. And the Tigers return every starter on the defensive line, and four of five on the offensive line, along with the senior Packard, who played a lot last season.
That last part is especially notable, Rodriquez points out, because "I think we had the best offensive line in the state last year. And this year, I think we're even better."
So the Tigers — keep in mind their expectations — believe they should be ranked first in that preseason poll.
"Our program doesn't believe that you should ever be content with where you are," Jadyn Brown said. "If someone says you have potential to be something good, what they're really saying is, 'You're not good right now, and you have to keep working at it.' So we're going to never be OK with where we're at."
The 40-man roster is down slightly from previous seasons, but it's a group that has total buy-in.
"We're not that big, but we're mighty, that's for sure," Rodriquez said. "We've got a lot of hard workers. We've got a lot of cowboys that are ready to put on their boots and go to work."
Freshmen and sophomores are eager to learn, and upperclassmen are eager to teach.
"We do a lot of non-football things together, and it really helps bring those younger kids in," coach Jacoby said. "They're a part of that family, a part of that brotherhood — and not only are they being coached, they're allowing themselves to be coached by their teammates."
"They've got heart," Rodwell, a lineman, said of the underclassmen. "They're all taking seniors on (in practice), it's pretty cool."
Added Jake Floryancic, a senior who plays center and defensive tackle: "Everybody pushes each other to be better."
It's a group that has been together since most of them were young. They played Pee Wee football alongside one another. And now, for the 14 seniors at least, this season is their last chance to line up next to their friends.
"We all live around here, we all know each other really well," said Elam Laing, another senior who plays tight end and defensive end. " I think it's really fun just playing with your friends and your buddies."
"We know each other and it's a family," Rodwell added later. "It's a brotherhood bond."
That word — brotherhood — comes up a lot with Bennett. It's even on the back of their jerseys. After practice, each coach names a player who stood out, and that player walks up for a congratulatory hug.
"No one gets left behind, so we're going to bring everyone with us," Jadyn Brown said. "If one man's going to keep fighting, you need to help keep fighting with him."
The community plays a large part in that, too.
Bennett's practice field, a sprawling natural turf, was built by local farmers. It's helped their gameday field stay in pristine condition. And the support from superintendent Robin Purdy and the school administration also played a large role in "helping us get the facilities to match the quality of program that we're putting together," Jacoby said.
"The town really rises around the football team," Jacoby added.
Now, the next step is to have the results match Bennett's expectations. It's the fire inside of each Tiger, one they hope eventually burns away last season's hurt.
"We're all hungry, and we want that title," Lechman said. "We want a ring."
Small-school football preview
- Regular season begins: Aug. 24 (Zero Week); Aug. 31 (Week 1)
- Playoffs begin: Oct. 28 (6-man); Nov. 4 (8-man, 1A, 2A)
- 2A: Nov. 25, home site
- 1A: Nov. 25, home site
- 8-man: Nov. 25, home site
- 6-man: Nov. 18, home site
- 2A: Kent Denver
- 1A: Strasburg
- 8-man: Sedgwick County
- 6-man: Flagler
Returning all-state players:
- First team: Willy Boatman, Kent Denver, OT/DL, Sr.; Peter Flack, D'Evelyn, MLB/OL, Sr.; T.J. Love, Kent Denver, DT/OT, Sr.; Joshua McDonald, Kent Denver, FB/LB, Sr.; Charles McKissick, Kent Denver, WR/FS, Sr.; Jon Nuschy, La Junta, QB, Jr.
- Second team: Mitchell Black, Faith Christian, G/DT, Sr.; Logan Church, Delta, OL/DL, Sr.; Ryan Phelps, Bayfield, DT/OT, Sr.; Josh Reeder, Delta, TE/DE, Sr.; Cole Sienknecht, Manitou Springs, QB/CB, Senior; Trevon Wehrman, Platte Valley, QB, Sr.; Cole Wood, Bayfield, G/MLB, Sr.; Taylor Wright, Manitou Springs, G/DT, Sr.
- First team: Hunter Bergstrom, Strasburg, LB/RB, Sr.; Chris Gudka, Strasburg, OT/DE, Sr.; Logan Hughes, Meeker, QB/DE, Sr.; Rocky Lechman, Bennett, QB/RB/SS, Sr.; Jesse Rodriquez, Bennett, QB/RB, Sr.; Chad Wiebelhaus, Strasburg, OT/DE, Sr.
- Second team: Doak Mantle, Meeker, RB/SS, Sr.; Jaden Miller, Paonia, FB/RB, Sr.; Forest Pejsa, Dolores, OL/LB, Jr.; Parker Randolph, Monte Vista, FS/WR/K, Jr.; Noah Sarria, Clear Creek, HB/FS/WR, Sr.; J.C. Spence, Strasburg, RB/WR/CB, Jr.; Chiante' Stewart, Ellicott, SB/DB, Sr.
- First team: Brennan Ehmke, Sedgwick County, QB, Sr.; Seth Mondragon, Dayspring Christian, RB/MLB, Sr.
- Second team: Remmington Canfield, Merino, LB/QB, Sr.; Tyce Marquez, Sedgwick County, Sr.; Christian Schaller, Sargent, ATH, Sr.; Jacob Yates, Hoehne, RB/DB, Sr.
- First team: None.
- Second team:Bryson Long, Peetz, Jr.; Caid Smith, Genoa-Hugo, RB/S, Sr.