LYONS — Thursday evening, after the Lyons' football team wrapped up its final practice before their preseason scrimmage, the Lions took a knee to await some closing comments from head coach Jason Yantzer.
The new coach who is set to begin his first campaign as the Lions' steward stood as a symbol of change. He gazed back, gestured and spoke passionately to the Lyons, delivering a message to new beginnings.
"People will look in the paper and see that last year this team was 1-8," Yanzter proclaimed. "You are not that team anymore."
Indeed, the Lyons did stumble through a one-win campaign in 2015. It was the program's first sub-.500 season in recent memory, which was difficult to swallow for a program that has long been defined by small numbers and big-time toughness.
After three-year head coach Brandon Wilkes was offered a football coach and athletic director position at Middle Park, an offer he couldn't refuse, Yantzer was hired in late June. A 14-year assistant coach at Hotchkiss, another small school known for its scrappiness, Yantzer got off to a late start with the Lyons.
The Lions struggled last year and are learning on the fly with a new coach, but the toughness and workmanlike mentality that defined the program for over a decade appear to have returned.
"These kids are willing to work," Yantzer said. "With my coming in a little bit late, it's been kind of an adjustment trying to get used to each other but we've already accomplished so much together. We're sharp. They're tough, they're scrappy and I saw that right away. We've got some really talented kids and I want them to play fast and aggressive. They know the bar is high and they know they're expected to raise the bar every day.
"The very first time the players met me, the first thing they said is, 'We want to win.' I can see it."
The Lions will switch to a split-back veer offense and expect to benefit from a strong number of returning players, many of whom were younger and took their lumps last season.
"We're definitely going to be a lot better than that this year," junior tailback Jake Laurienti said. "We're really coming together as a team, we're faster and stronger, and we have new coaches so we're learning a lot."
The Lions open the season on the road against Dolores Huerta Prep at CSU-Pueblo next Friday. Dolores Huerta Prep is currently mired in a 15-game losing streak that dates back to Sept. 18, 2014. The Lions will look to keep that streak alive and hopefully build the momentum they need in order to return to the postseason.
"We don't have a number of wins in mind but we're going to start by trying to win that first one," junior quarterback Keegan Bean said. "We're playing at the college stadium down there so that will be fun. We'll start by trying to win that first game and keep getting better every week after that."
COACH: Jason Yantzer (1st year).
LAST YEAR: 1-8 overall, 1-5 1A Metro League.
RETURNING STARTERS: Keegan Bean (Jr., QB/LB, 6-2, 185); Andrew Booth (Jr., WR/DB, 5-11, 145); Tyler Curry (Sr., WR/DB, 5-10, 155); Kyle Froling (Sr., OL/DE, 6-2, 215); Jake Laurienti (Jr., RB/LB, 5-11, 165); Joe McCain (Jr., WR/DB, 5-11, 165); Gabe Proznokas (Jr., OL/DL, 5-10, 245); Dante Traghella (Jr., RB/LB, 5-10, 155); Aaron Vasquez (Sr., OL/DL, 6-3, 345).
OTHERS TO WATCH: Karson Bean (Fr., LB/RB, 6-1, 180); Dawson Kelley (Sr., TE/DB, 6-2, 155).
MULST-SEE GAME: Sept. 16 vs. Wiggins, 7 p.m.
STRENGTHS: Sporting a good number of returning starters with varsity experience from last season, the Lions expect to play fast and fly to the ball as a team.
WEAKNESSES: The Lions are small in number, are learning a new system and have many players at new positions this season.
Sept. 2 — at Dolores Huerta, 7 p.m.
Sept. 9 — FRONT RANGE CHRISTIAN, 7 p. m.
Sept. 16 — WIGGINS, 7 p.m.
Sept. 23 — YUMA, 7 p.m.
Sept. 30 — at Cornerstone Christian*, 4 p.m.
Oct. 7 — ESTES PARK*, 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 — at Highland*, 7 p.m.
Oct. 21 — BYERS*, 7 p.m.
Oct. 28 — at Strasburg*, 7 p.m.
Note: Home games are uppercase and at Lyons High School. * Asterisk denotes 1A Northern League opponents.