WEST FARGO-When studying the 2017 West Fargo Sheyenne football team, finding the biggest difference between the team's wins and losses isn't a difficult task.
Behind a bruising run game, the Mustangs had one of the most consistent offenses in the Eastern Dakota Conference, finishing second in scoring at just under 30 points per game.
For most of the year, the Mustangs defense was equally impressive, surrendering just 12.1 points on average in their seven wins. But the stoutness that helped carry them to those victories was nowhere to be found in their three losses, in which they allowed an alarming 53 points a contest.
The worst of these performances came in the opening round of the Class 3A state playoffs, when Minot scored in six of its first seven possessions en route to handing Sheyenne a season-ending 66-37 loss.
Head coach Jeremy Newton said a normally aggressive group sometimes lost its edge playing against strong offenses, a problem he and his staff have been aiming to fix during the preseason.
"They've got to be smarter and aggressive," Newton said. "That's kind of what we lost in the games we've lost."
For the unit's six returning starters-a group that includes All-EDC defensive back Caden Jastram and last season's leading tackler Zach Rodgers-a return to game action can't come soon enough. Calling the loss to Minot a "haunting" experience, they say they're ready to show how much they've improved.
"Our defense is way (better) than it was last year," Jastram said. "Intelligence is way better, communication is better. Guys know what they're doing and experience helps that a lot."
The Mustangs backed up Jastram's claims in their first dose of game action last Thursday. Against a new-look West Fargo team that defeated Sheyenne 49-14 a year ago, the Mustangs held the Packers out of the end zone in an hour-long scrimmage.
On the other side of the ball, the offense expects to pick up where it left off last season, despite some key departures.
A big reason for optimism is the return of senior quarterback Parker Sander. In his first year under center, Sander threw for 959 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions, while completing 51 percent of his passes in 2017.
Having already been through the rigors of a varsity season, he expects to improve on those numbers considerably.
"I've gotten better at reading everything," Sander said. "I feel more comfortable back there and have gotten to be more of a leader."
Knowing how much time it can take to break in a new starter, Newton says being able to roll with an experienced veteran has helped things run more smoothly during summer practices.
"It's a big deal," he said of retaining his quarterback. "Last year he was learning and trying to get his feet wet, and this year he's a veteran and he can make a lot of decisions on his own I may have had to help him out with last year."
Also making things easier is the return of top receiver Jastram, who had 369 yards and six touchdown catches a year ago.
The development of the passing game may prove critical early, as the Mustang offense is less seasoned in other areas. Up front, an offensive line that graduated three starters, including All-EDC picks Jack Scholl and Kemal Hajric, remains in flux.
The biggest absence is likely to be felt in the backfield, following the graduation of Jason Gaulrapp, who led the EDC with 1,123 yards and 15 touchdowns.
And while it may prove difficult for any individual to match Gaulrapp's production, the Mustangs look to be in position to succeed with a committee approach.
Senior Hunter Hoffner (389 yards, four touchdowns in 2017) and junior Nathan Goldade (383, seven) will lead the backfield charge after averaging 7.3 and 6.2 yards per carry in supporting roles last season.
Sheyenne also has an additional running threat in Sander, who added 346 yards on the ground.
Having reached the state tournament in each of the last three seasons, the Mustangs are looking for more sustained success after making it out of the first round just once.
While Newton is committed to the "one-game-at-a-time" mantra at this point, he says people shouldn't be surprised to see his team playing late into November.
"We have some pretty good athletes and that's something that's going to help us this year," he said. "I think this team is every bit as talented as the one we had last year. It's just a matter if leadership can step up and make things happen."
Aug. 24: at Bismarck Century, 7 p.m.
Aug. 31: vs. Bismarck Legacy, 7 p.m.
Sept. 7: at West Fargo, 7 p.m.
Sept. 14: at Fargo Davies, 7 p.m.
Sept. 21: vs. Fargo North, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28: at Dickinson, 5:30 p.m.
Oct. 5: vs. Grand Forks Central, 7 p.m.
Oct. 11: vs. Grand Forks Red River, 7 p.m.
Oct. 17: at Fargo South, 7 p.m.