Some high school football coaches come into a season knowing their team will be good. Others know they will struggle.
Then there's Triton head coach Mike Ellingson. Three weeks into this season, he has only begun to figure out how good his team might be.
"We definitely were inexperienced to start the year," he said. "We have four new starting offensive linemen. Defensively, we returned just two kids who started for the entire season last year, and just a couple more who started some games."
That inexperience was on full display during Triton's opener at Stewartville, as the Cobras got off to a disastrous start and trailed 38-13 early in the third quarter.
Then, behind senior quarterback Austin Melder, the Cobras rallied. They still lost 44-35, but the momentum from that strong second half carried over into a home win over Zumbrota-Mazeppa, and then the Cobras went on the road and upset seventh-ranked Chatfield 16-14.
The Cobras have made a habit of knocking off heavy favorites. Last year, in the first round of the playoffs, they went to St. Charles as the No. 7 seed in Section 1AA and knocked off the No. 2 seeded Saints.
"There's an expectation in Triton that kids will give a winning effort," Ellingson said. "We have a winning tradition, and I know that our kids want to honor that tradition. I'm proud of the way they've responded this year, and as of this moment, I can say that we are ego-less."
That lack of individual ego is especially important at the quarterback position, where Melder gets most of the snaps but still gives way to junior Mason Barker in certain situations.
"Mason has a really good arm, so he can throw the ball deep," Melder said. "I'm more of a running quarterback, so the option is more my thing. But we can switch it up. Mason can run the option, and I can throw the ball, so it's hard for people to match up with that."
Melder emphasized that it doesn't matter who is taking snaps, as long as the Cobras get the win. "Everyone on this team is all for each other, and that's why we have the mantra 'Win as one,'" he said. "My biggest job as a senior is to help everyone do what we all want to do, which is to keep winning."
The Melder-Barker duo gives opposing coaches plenty to think about, especially with the athletes the Cobras have at running back. Sophomore Braxton Munnikhuysen rushed for 142 yards against Chatfield, and Ellingson said junior running back Jaxon Sackett has the kind of speed and athleticism that gives opposing coaches nightmares.
And then there's the guy in the middle -- senior fullback Parker Boe, who got the Cobras on the board with a huge play against Chatfield.
"That run by Parker was one of those when you look back on the tape and realize how special it was," Ellingson said. "It was an option left, and he takes the ball on dive play, gets hit and stumbles, puts his hand on the ground and continues to rumble in from 36 yards out. He's never been a fullback before, and how he's becoming a real leader for us defensively as well."
Boe said he and his teammates are playing fast and loose and don't feel any pressure. "We come into a tough road game like that feeling like we have nothing to lose," he said. "Everyone just goes out and plays with their whole heart."
What makes the Cobra's strong start more impressive is that they have opened with three of four games on the road -- but Boe said he's eager to play under familiar lights. "We cannot wait for home games," he said. "It's so fun to come out here and play in front of our fans and get some wins on our home turf."
While Melder and Boe are likely to make headline-grabbing plays on any given night, Ellingson also pointed out that the Cobras lean heavily on another senior, Jay Yankowiak, who has tough jobs on both offense and defense that don't show up on the stat sheet but can change the outcome of a game.
"Jay had the hardest task of the night against Chatfield, dealing with the Backer brothers (Chance and Sam) the whole night," Ellingson said. "They're both great athletes, and Jay did a fantastic job. When you're basically playing man coverage all night and you end up with six or seven solo tackles, you're doing a lot of things right. And then he had a huge interception at the end of that game."
Yankowiak, who speaks quietly and is reluctant to talk about himself, seems to personify the ego-less Cobras.
"It's tough, obviously, covering the other team's top receiver, but it's fun, too," he said. "And really, I just accept my various roles and do what everybody else does -- I come out and do my job."
He also pointed out that the Cobras' are getting huge contributions from players who are seeing their first varsity action. "We had a lot of roles that needed to be filled this year, and the young guys have been stepping up and doing the job. It's been amazing to see."
The Cobras will need to keep improving if they dream of adding a fourth state title to their school's impressive football tradition. Caledonia will likely stand between Triton and a state tournament berth, and the Cobras host the Warriors in the final week of the regular season.
While Ellingson is the typical coach who says things like "every game is important" and his team "can't afford to look ahead," his senior leaders were less diplomatic.
"Of course we have the Caledonia game circled," Boe said. "It's not a must-win game, but we want to compete with those guys. We want to be the ones who end that streak."