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Last year was about buying in. This year is about building up.

The Coconino Panthers spent last season's first three games getting back on track after a long stretch of losing seasons. The program wanted to take on some different teams, such as Carl Hayden, while taking care of some question marks.

They wanted to schedule teams they thought they could regroup against. Coconino went 3-0 to start 2018, and is hoping to do the same in 2019, a season that naturally has a different feel than the last.

"This year, I think it’s just slightly different," Panthers head coach Mike Lapsley said Wednesday before practice. "They understand the system and believe in the system more. With that said, the confidence is great going into these next games because they’ve seen what we are capable of doing as a team defensively and offensively.”

The 4A Conference Panthers have beaten their first two opponents, 4A Thunderbird and 5A Carl Hayden, by a combined score of 84-13. Last season, the team cruised by its first three opponents by a combined score of 125-28.

If Coconino stays focused and keeps its foot on the pedal this Friday at home in Cromer Stadium against the Cortez Colts, the Panthers have potential to surpass last season's success when it came to the scorelines.

“It’s one of those where we want to make sure we are springing forward no matter what game it is," said Lapsley, who was the offensive coordinator last year under then head coach Mike Moran when the team crushed Cortez on the road, 56-0. "With that being said, we know what is down the pipe, so to speak. Getting our guys focused on a game like this Friday's and staying focused for the next three is extremely important for us. Not just the next three, but we know those will be big ones for us.”

After 4A Cortez, which enters Friday with an 0-2 record, Coconino starts taking on Grand Canyon Region foes with a crucial stretch that consists of Mingus Union, Bradshaw Mountain and Prescott.

So this week's about keeping the machine running on high octane.

“We are going to keep hammering home -- working lateral, exploding off the football," Panthers defensive coordinator Dalton Schwetz. "They made great improvements last week, highlighted by Riley’s play where he beat them into the backfield and grabbed the ball.”

Riley Darnell broke through the line and robbed a Carl Hayden handoff last week that he turned into a touchdown and a Panthers 14-0 lead. Later in last week's game in the second quarter, Coconino had a punt blocked and Carl Hayden made its way to the goal line -- only to be prevented from breaking through.

Coconino led 28-0 at the time of the threat and could have allowed the touchdown.

That's not their mentality.

“We want to make teams work for every single yard," Schwetz said. "We’ve seen the first few games, and even when teams are moving the ball, chunking us a little bit, at some point we stick our feet in the ground and dig in and wait for the mistake.”

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Schwetz added that his team needs to keep focusing on getting the big play while also preventing it.

The Panthers found out last week they have a weapon capable of making big plays, as senior quarterback Jordan Lucero went 2 for 4 with two TD passes and 34 yards passing. The lefty threw for the scores while rolling out and under pressure.

And now Coconino has it on film for other teams to keep an eye on.

“Certainly it allows us to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. Jordan has done a great job of execution, but on top of that, he’s a real skilled athlete," Lapsley said.

But if Lucero is going to get more comfortable throwing the ball, his line will have to step up to the challenge this week.

Although Cortez has not scored a point yet this season, it brings a big-sized group of players to the trenches each week. Coconino expects a gritty game in the trenches against a team hungry for any kind of success.

“Our boys know that, they looked at film and we've talked about it," Lapsley said of Cortez's size. "They will have to execute the fundamentals to handle those guys, but I think they are up to the challenge this week.”

Here are few more things to watch Friday when the Panthers host the Colts at 7 p.m.:

TAKING THE LEAD

Coconino and Cortez enter Friday with an all-time record of 4-4-1 against each other. The Colts beat the Panthers in back-to-back seasons in 2007 and '08. Coconino's win last season at 56-0 was by far the biggest deficit in a meeting between the two teams.

HALFWAY THERE?

Coconino junior running back Zach Bennett already has 377 rushing yards through two games. If he has another 100-yard performance against Cotez this Friday, he'll be 40% on the way to reaching his 2018 rushing total of 1,210. Last season, Bennett ran for 146 yards and three TDs against Cortez.

OUT TO PASTURE

The Colts are currently stuck on a 27-game losing streak that started back in 2016. In fact, the Flagstaff Eagles started the skid when they beat Cortez 47-14 on Sept. 16, 2016.

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Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at mhartman@azdailysun.com. Follow him on Twitter @AZDS_Hartman.

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