Palmer Ridge coach Tom Pulford talks to his team after a quarterfinal win over Conifer in the 3A quarterfinals on Saturday November 23, 2019 at Don Breese Stadium (Lindsey Smith, The Gazette)

If you take a walk down memory lane of the Palmer Ridge football program you’ll see that something has changed for the Bears in coach Tom Pulford’s eight-year tenure.

It started slowly, improving from 2-8 to 5-5 between his first and second seasons. Then continued to climb from the program’s first eight-win season in 2015, to the first league championship in 2016, and finally a perfect 14-0 season capped with a state title in 2017.

Since, it has been about sustaining the program’s success — which the Bears have, winning back-to-back state titles in 2018 and '19.

But now Gazette Preps 3A-1A Football Coach of the Year Pulford and the Bears have a new challenge ahead. How will Palmer Ridge continue its new tradition of excellence in Class 4A?

“There’s some things that will stay the same in terms of the expectations for our kids in the offseason and the opportunities we provide for them here in the weight room and on the field,” Pulford said. “But we are going to be on the dawn of a lot of new looks that we will have to prepare for so it will be on us as coaches to make sure we get the kids ready for what they’re going to see.”

Palmer Ridge will move up from 3A to start the 2020 season with the new Colorado High School Activities Association alignment, competing in the 4A Southern 1 league, but aside from making sure his team is more prepared for new, heightened competition, it’s business as usual, starting with what has brought the team success the last five years — building relationships.

“I think we started to see some strong transformational changes in our program when we focused on building relationships in three categories,” Pulford said.

The relationships between players, and making sure teammates bond off the gridiron is No. 1. Followed by a player to coach relationship, which ensures that coaches and players feel they are on the same level, and can open up to one another. And finally, working on coach to coach relationships to create strong bonds among the coaching staff.

“When we started investing in relationships that’s where we started to see a high level of transformation that started to happen both on the field and off,” Pulford said, saying he saw the most growth between 2014, the team’s first winning season in three years, and 2015, the program’s first playoff berth under Pulford.

“Even though players are going to change from year to year I hope that we can continue to focus on personal relationships because to me that is the real goal,” Pulford said. “That is going to outlast any trophy we have in the case, and what I hope what these kids take away is the relationships that they’ve built while they were here. Those relationships that were forged here at Palmer Ridge are really what we strive for.”

Once those relationships are established on a strong foundation, Pulford said, then the true transformation begins as players begin to hold each other accountable for growth and success.

“When coaches hold players accountable it's certainly important and there’s always a need for that, but when players are holding players accountable I believe that starts to be transformational in a program,” Pulford said. “There are things that change during the course of a season or leading into a season based on the kids that we have but I hope that in the past and in the years to come we stay consistent on building strong personal relationships.”