What a difference a year makes.
Hotchkiss football coach Mike Sirko began his second season last week, and already the Bulldogs are showing signs of improvement.
"The biggest difference I feel like is we're playing like one unit," Sirko said. "Coming in last year it was a new group and all that stuff, so this year I feel like these kids have bought into what we're doing, especially with the summer workouts. We had a good turnout in the summer, and they responded, and they've been doing a good job in the weight room."
Last year the young Bulldogs started strong but fell victim to late-season injuries, finishing the campaign on a three-game losing streak and a 4-6 record after a first-round elimination from the 1A playoffs.
Sirko conducted the offseason with one goal in mind: get bigger. The result was an active summer in the weight room for the Bulldogs.
"We have to start five or six sophomores again this year, so having them in the weight room has given them the confidence to step in there and do the things they have to," Sirko said.
Last Thursday the Bulldogs offensive line was flying off the ball. They blocked hard and looked like a unit that was far beyond its fourth practice.
"They've got some size, and they can actually move pretty well, too," Sirko said about the O-line. "We worked hard on their running this summer, and they're moving pretty well; we're excited about that."
The foundation of the line is senior Cameron Matus, a two-way starter last year whom Sirko called the heart and soul of the O-line.
"He worked his tail off in the weight room all year," Sirko said. "I'd get here at 5:30 in the morning, and he'd already be in there. That's the kind of commitment he has."
Sirko expects another two-way senior, Jaden Simpson, to have an outstanding year.
"He's really special, he's a leader," Sirko said. "He'll play tight end and outside backer for us."
Junior quarterback Colton DeLuzio has been solid in practice so far, looking confident and taking most of the snaps with the first team.
"He's doing a nice job," Sirko said. "You know what I love most about the kid is he works, and he's also a heck of a leader. He's one of those team players. He's just as excited about our tailback getting a 4-yard run as he is about getting a touchdown pass. That's the kind of quarterback I need in my offense."
Just like last season, the Bulldogs will play a power running game behind that big offensive line. Junior Wade Katzdorn will have plenty of chances to run the ball from the tailback position after his strong debut performance last year.
"We'll throw when we need to, but we'll be a run-oriented football team," Sirko said. "But when we do throw it, we want to be able to do a good job of it."
Sirko runs a crisp boot camp practice, barking orders and wearing a floppy hat and camo shorts. Players shout "Hoorah!" after they get the plays and coaches call the Bulldogs, "Soldiers."
"We want to teach the 'Team above me' concept, with one heartbeat," Sirko said. "The kids play for each other, it's a brotherhood. That's all part of it. We're just trying to get our kids to understand it is regimented, it is football."
Hotchkiss has a very difficult non-league schedule that includes 2A contender Olathe, 1A state runner up Buena Vista and seventh-ranked Monte Vista.
The Bulldogs will have to come together fast as they open the season Friday night in a Zero Week game on the road at Ignacio.
"I feel really good about a Zero Week game because our kids have done some things this summer to get us prepared," Sirko said. "We can't wait to get these young puppies playing, see how much of a bite they'll have."