The first loss for the Manitou Springs Mustangs couldn't have come at a worse time last season.
In 2013, the Mustangs ran the table through their regular season schedule and earned the No. 2 seed heading into the 2A playoffs.
They cruised by Jefferson in the first round, then emerged from a tough battle with Kent Denver in the quarterfinals. A week later, it was on their home field that the Mustangs fell for the first time in 2013, losing 13-7 to eventual Class 2A champion Platte Valley.
While the Mustangs have a solid group of returning players in 2014, they'll enter the season looking nothing like the semifinal team they were last year.
In January, coach Danny Gieck stepped down from the position in order to focus more on his family and overall duties to the district. After an extensive search, the Mustangs — for the first time since the retirement of longtime coach George Rykovich — hired an outsider. Former Palmer Ridge coach Monte Gutowski took the position and looks maintain the level of success the Mustangs found in 2013, but will do so with a different approach.
"I don't think (anyone else's expectations) matter, I think that within our team — what our team goals are and us as a coaching staff — are the things that we need to focus on," Gutowski said. "Everybody external is going to have their own opinion and that's rightfully theirs but that's none of my business. I don't care what their expectations are, I care about what my expectations are for my club."
The most notable difference for Gutowski's Mustangs from those of the past will be the absence of the single-wing offense. The "wildcat" style offense was first utilized by Rykovich and carried on through the short coaching careers of CHSAA hall of famer Justin Armour and Gieck.
Gutowski is a fan of varying formations and uses a lot of pistol in his offense, which he will bring to Manitou.
"Everybody gets all wigged out with the pistol, but it's still just a short shotgun," he said. "We'll have a power running game with zone read-type concepts and things like that involved."
The new offensive style won't be hard for the Mustangs to grasp, Gutowski insists. He was able to work with the team during a summer camp and started to implement the necessary components of the offense, which the team responded well to.
He'll use the time between the start of official practices and the Mustangs' first game (Aug. 29 against state runner-up Faith Christian) to fine-tune his offense and hopefully work out any kinks the Mustangs may have. Gutowski remains confident that the Mustangs will have few issues transitioning into a new system, mostly because of the athleticism he has found in his team.
"Skill-wise, a lot of the skill guys that are back have really good overall team speed," he said. "I think it fits them, being able to do some of the things I'm asking them to do and letting them be the athletes they are not over-coaching them."
The Mustangs, ranked No. 4 in the preseason, hope to repeat as Tri-Peaks league champions, but face a tough non-league schedule in Faith Christian, Woodland Park, Buena Vista and Eaton. Their first league game will be played on Sept. 26 when they host La Junta.
Class 2A football
Defending champion: Faith Christian
Runner-up: Platte Valley
Returning All-State players: Caleb Creech, Sr., Platte Valley; Jonathan Cretti, Sr., Bennett; Ryan Fitzgerald, Sr. Aspen; Jaden Franklin, Sr., Kent Denver; John Jordan, Jr., Bennett; Connor McCain, Sr., Faith Christian; Ethan Rose, Sr., Sterling; Kyle Rosenbrock, Sr., Brush; Jacob Smith, Sr., Strasburg
Playoffs begin: Nov. 1
Championship: Nov. 22 at home site