NICOLLET - Dalton Elliott knows this is it.
After falling to Underwood in the state quarterfinals last season, the senior quarterback knows he has one season to help lead 9-Man powerhouse Nicollet to the promised land of winning a state title.
Last year's season-ending defeat at the hands of Underwood - Nicollet's only loss after getting to state with an 11-0 record - has served as motivation heading into this season.
"It still is, really," Elliott said when asked how long the loss lingered on his mind. "It's something you can't forget about. You've got to take it lightly, you can't beat yourself up over it."
Elliott, who set 12 school records in 25 starts at quarterback, passed for a state-best 2,872 yards last season on 175-for-293 passing (59.7 percent) with 37 touchdowns.
"He's really composed, he's got a really good grasp of our offense," said Nicollet coach Tom Murphy of Elliott. "When you watch him play, he's under control."
Despite getting looks from Drake University and North Dakota State University for football, Elliott said he just likes to go out and play instead of worrying about all the other superficial things.
"I've been preparing for this for the last six, seven months," Elliott said. "I just need to keep working on my craft, keep using what I learned in the summer - I went to 12 camps this summer - and keep putting all these things that I can use to help me and my teammates."
As a true 9-Man team with 26 kids out for football, Murphy said having eight seniors this season is an added bonus for a squad that does not have that much depth.
"For us, that's a big senior class; we'll take eight at any grade," Murphy said. "I think they want to be successful. They've seen what's happened in front of them and we challenge them [and say] let's do some things that other groups haven't. It's nice to be in a situation where your expectations are very high every year and there's no reason to change that."
However, changes have needed to be made for the Raiders personnel-wise after losing the school's all-time leading tackler in Matt Christenson, who is now playing football at St. Thomas.
However, they have returning All-Conference selections Colin Bloemke and Jay Hendrycks, who combined for 203 total tackles last season. Hendrycks, who is a three-year starter on defense, also had six interceptions and three defensive touchdowns last season.
"I'm hoping to step in as the leading tackler this year on defense," Hendrycks said. "We're definitely going to have to work more as a team because [Christenson] was such a big presence - every single tackle, he would get it. He could take so much on and now we're going to have to rely on more people and work as a team."
On offense, one of Elliott's favorite targets returns in senior Kenny Fischer, who hauled in 33 passes for 632 yards and five touchdowns last season.
A returning qualifier for the state track meet in the boy's 100-meter dash this past June, Fischer will likely be the fastest receiver for Nicollet and can be at any given time. Murphy said this can also open things up for other receivers if Fischer becomes a key target for defenders' coverage.
Bloemke, Travis Murphy and Desmond Wills will also shoulder a lot of the workload at wide receiver this season. Andrew Radke, an All-Conference honorable mention last season, is expected to be a solid force playing both ways this season as well.
This year's schedule gets a lot tougher for Nicollet, which Murphy said is a positive. Nicollet will get Hills-Beaver Creek (6-4), Edgerton/Ellsworth (8-2) and fellow 2013 state qualifier Mountain Lake Area (11-1) along with rivals Madelia (8-3) and Granada-Huntley-East Chain/Truman (6-4).
"We're hoping to get as many wins as we can," Hendrycks said. "If we do lose to the tough teams, we need to learn from it and be ready to hit sections hard."