AZTEC – Aztec is an experienced bunch, but little things like penalties and misreading plays accumulated and prevented what could’ve been a tremendous 2016 season.

“That was just dumb parts on ourselves,” senior defensive end Jaxon Hathcock said.

The Tigers’ key unit is back for 2017, but the window of opportunity is closing. And the urgency to go even deeper in the 5A state playoffs is great.

“It’s definitely something we discussed as a program. As you get older, the window for potential decreases. You either realize your talents, or you don’t. These guys are very well-aware of it,” coach Matthew Steinfeldt said. “With a team as veteran as this one is, we’re looking to play well into the season. We have great leadership and great talent, and that’s something to be excited about.”

The key returners include Hathcock, senior quarterback Cody Smith, senior defensive end Logan Thorpe, senior running back Austin Clay and senior wide receivers Justin Black and Sebastian McNeal.

“I see lots of talent on both sides of the ball. Our skill group’s amazing. We have lots of weapons,” Smith said.

And with that personnel, the Tigers are not content with just a district title and a decent playoff seed.

“I think we would’ve done a lot better if we pushed ourselves harder,” Hathcock said. “For our senior class, this is now or never.”

Aztec (7-4 last year, 5-0 in District 1-5A) has a potent pass-heavy spread offense, but there were a few too many instances where players dropped passes due to misreading certain routes.

“Those were things we were not proficient at,” Steinfeldt said. “We need guys to fulfill roles (and) their assignments and not always be the head-hunter that makes a big play.”

On defense, they gave up a few too many big runs in the middle creases, simply because they weren’t quite in the correct sports ahead of time to get those stops.

“We had really back tackling. We’d just hit and fall off, now we’re trying to improve upon that,” Hathcock said.

The Tigers also dealt with little penalties like holding and offside calls too often.

“Some of those things that trip you up should not be the case. We should be a far more disciplined team. That experience should demonstrate itself in execution of plays. Essentially, we’re going to see a lot less broken assignments,” Steinfeldt said.

Although Aztec’s defense surrendered 29.7 points per game, the offense dumped 31.9 points a game on its foes.

Steinfeldt said if the Tigers cut down on those little miscues, he expects an even stronger season in 2017 – particularly a “drastically improved” defense. Steinfeldt said if the defense can hold opponents to 18-21 points a game, he will be happy because he knows the damage his offense does.

Aztec, which lost 42-22 against Farmington in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, open the new season 7 p.m. Friday at Los Lunas.

This current group’s time at Aztec is coming to an end. And Aztec’s dreaming big, hoping to hoist its first blue trophy since 2011.

“Our new saying is, ‘no excuses.’ Every team we play, we have no excuse to lose,” Smith said. “I think we have a really good shot (at the title) this year. There’s no excuse why we can’t win it this year.”

Matt Hollinshead covers sports for the Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.