By the time the 2017 season starts, it will have been 279 days since Goddard lost 35-34 in double overtime to Mill Valley in the Class 5A championship game.
It’s a number that Justin Amaro has dutifully tracked since the day the Lions came agonizingly close to a title.
“Every day I think about it,” Amaro said. “We thought we had it won, then it all fell apart.”
“I still haven’t put it behind myself,” quarterback Blake Sullivan chimed in.
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“I’ve had nights where I can’t sleep,” lineman A.J. Vang said. “It’s in my mind constantly.”
So no, the returning players at Goddard aren’t about to forget how a fumble at the 1-yard in overtime and a missed extra-point in double overtime prevented them from winning a state championship.
Goddard coach Scott Vang is trying to tap into that competitiveness to bring out the best in the Lions, who begin the season ranked No. 3 in Class 5A.
“Honestly, we haven’t talked about that game a whole lot as a group, but I know it’s still burning inside everyone,” Scott Vang said. “We’re all disappointed because we know we should have won that game. We’re still irritated and we’re ready to get back out there and finish the job.”
Out of nowhere, Goddard stormed to an 11-win season last year with a balanced team led by a fiery senior class. The Lions had offensive punch with tailback Kody Gonzalez and quarterback Sullivan, and a nasty defense spearheaded by its defensive ends in Cale Davidson and Ethan Wright.
Goddard doesn’t return an overwhelming amount of starters from that team — nine — but Scott Vang believes those nine were among the best on the team. He feels a lot better about trying to find newcomers to fill in, rather than trying to find a new foundation altogether.
“These kids like to win, they like to compete and they don’t take losing very well,” Vang said. “They all know that we’ve got a chance to get back there again, so they’re working hard.”
Losing in such excruciating fashion only strengthened the players’ drive.
“Now we want it more than ever,” Sullivan said. “We’re more dedicated than ever to get back to that game and win it.”
“There’s a lot of times where people don’t want to wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning, but then they start thinking about that ring and it sticks in your head and it makes you keep going and going,” A.J. Vang said. “We know we’re getting a ring this year. We had a chance last year and now we’ve got to get back.”
Goddard has established a physical identity.
The coach likes that he has standouts at every level on his team.
Sullivan is one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks returning in Kansas after throwing for more than 2,300 yards and rushing for 1,500. He’ll have one of his favorite targets to throw to in Owen Beason, while the offensive line returns A.J. Vang at center, Aaron Valentine at guard, and Chod Morrow at tackle.
On defense, Jacob Mondragon will anchor the line from his tackle position, Amaro will do the same at linebacker, and Ian McSwain and Cole Caraway might be the best safety tandem in the state.
“And now we’ve all been there before and we know what to expect and know how to prepare,” A.J. Vang said. “How many times do you see teams that could lose but they don’t because they’ve been there before, they’ve been deep in the playoffs, they’ve been to the championship. I think that experience is really going to help out a lot.”
This winning mentality is a new concept to the team’s new running back, Darius Russell, a transfer from North who won a total of one game the last two seasons. Now he will stand next to Sullivan in the spread offense and try to help his team chase a state championship.
“I can’t really relate to it, but I’m just doing my best to help these guys win,” Russell said. “I try to use all of the hard stuff I’ve gone through as a motivation. I know this is a winning program and I want to win just like they do. I haven’t won a game for a while, so it will be something new. I think I’ll enjoy it.”
Scott Vang doesn’t think he’ll bring up last season’s championship game in preparation for this season. He doesn’t feel like he has to.
In private, he still hasn’t discussed the game with some of his assistant coaches. He knows some of them still haven’t watched the game film.
“As a coach, when you get that close, you never put that stuff in the past,” Vang said. “We had chance on the biggest stage to win it all and we came up short. It sticks with you.”
That feeling may always be there, but Goddard wants to replace it with a new memory this November.
“We’re coming to win it this year,” Amaro said. “We’re not going to leave any doubts. We’re not going to let it get to overtime or let it come down to one or two plays. We want to roll through our competition and make sure we win it all this year.”