The Air Academy High School boys' lacrosse team lost to the eventual state champs, 13-10, in the final game of the 2018 regular season.
The Kadets were on the brink of something special under coach Ethan Hilberg.
Just one year later, Air Academy went 12-5 and made a push to the state quarterfinals. Turning the program around earned Hilberg The Gazette Preps 2019 Boys' Lacrosse Coach of the Year honor.
"Honestly, the work that gets put in by all of my coaching staff and players is what makes us so special," said Hilberg, who just finished his second year as head coach and fourth total with the team. "I'm just trying to put them in positions where they can excel."
Much of Hilberg's success can be attributed to freshman Grant Rodny, who logged a team-high 92 points by accumulating 43 goals and 49 assists. He came into the program as a youngster out of middle school and delivered, something that's uncommon for most at his age.
The thought is to build the team around Rodny with the hopes of also replacing senior talent that has since graduated.
"Grant is going to be a huge piece going forward and trying to find more ways to get the other younger guys involved with him," Hilberg said.
Mark Garrett is one of the most important pieces to replace, as he was the heart and soul of Air Academy's team, registering 83 points on 55 goals and 28 assists. Another is Peter Steigerwald, who had 19 goals and 23 assists.
Senior Noah Thornally was only able to play 11 games due to an early season injury, but when he was on the field, he had 15 goals and 13 assists.
The Kadets are working with more than just a stud freshman, other underclassmen expected to take a step forward are sophomores Justin Ballard and Clayton Cox. The duo combined for 60 points last season.
"I don't see our team having a rebuilding year," Hilberg said.
During Air Academy's 12-5 season in 2019, which featured a 5-1 mark in Southern league, the Kadets rolled over Telluride, 19-4, in the Class 4A tournament as the No. 6 seed before losing to No. 3 Thompson Valley, 16-7, to end the season.
Hilberg's goal is easier said than done – to win the state title. After all, the future is bright with Rodny expected to pace the squad for years to come.
"We want to be competing for that state title," Hilberg said. "It's an opportunity to learn how to succeed in life."