Delta football spent most of 2013 lighting up the scoreboard on their way to a 9-4 record and the Class 3A state semifinals, where they fell to eventual runner-up Silver Creek 28-17.
Though they came oh-so-close last season, the good news for the Panthers, and head coach Ben Johnson, is that the team has plenty of talent returning from an offense that averaged over 35 points per-game during the regular season.
That doesn't mean, according to coach Johnson, the road can't and won't get bumpy — especially in the early going.
"We've got a lot of good kids returning, but I think our schedule's very tough. We open up with (The Classical Academy) and then we have Montrose," said Johnson, who's in his sixth season at Delta. "The most important thing is to just get through our schedule and get into the playoffs, and then anything can happen there."
Delta will be led by returning senior quarterback Cade Gafford, a three-sport athlete who tossed 25 touchdowns versus just five interceptions last season. Gafford will be without all-state wide out Ryan Whiteside, who pulled down 76 catches for 1213 yards as a senior last season — but Johnson already believes he has a good candidate in mind to replace Whiteside's production.
"Gafford threw for like 2,300 yards last year and had a really good year," Johnson said. "We do have some good receivers. We have a six-foot-five receiver, senior Eian Baier, who I think is very good."
Baier caught 10 passes for 147 yards as a junior last year.
Johnson doesn't see the Panthers as a one-dimensional offense either — running back Johnathan Ponce, who rushed for 1,702 yards and led the team in all-purpose yards, returns for his junior season. Paving the way for Ponce will be big senior left tackle Marcus Garcia.
Together with Gafford, Ponce and Garcia make up what Johnson calls, "our big three," and compromise the backbone of what looks to be another potent Panthers' attack.
In all, Johnson envisions a versatile game-plan capable of putting up points anyway possible — just like last season.
"We really try and be very balanced. We want to throw the ball, we want to run the ball, and keep teams' off-balance," said Johnson. "If they load the box we'll throw it, if they play off we'll run it."
That kind of diversity pays off come playoff time.
The 3A state football playoffs are wild — six out of eight playoff teams were upset by a lower seed in the first round alone last year — so it pays to be able to put points on the board in every possible way. After two straight seasons with a winning record, and after coming within inches of playing for a championship in 2013, Johnson just hopes his team gets another chance to reach the summit in 2014.
"We have a pretty experienced group, so we just want to make sure we get our chance to get in (to the playoffs) and try to do some good things," he said.
Class 3A football
Defending Champion: Coronado (moved up to 4A)
Runner-up: Silver Creek
Returning All-State players: Ouray Ocanas, Fort Morgan, Sr. (1st); Isaiah Young, Vista PEAK, Sr. (1st)
Regular season begins: August 21
Playoffs begin: November 8
Championship: November 29 at home site