BIG HORN — The Big Horn football team knows what happened last year in its final game of the season. This year, the Rams are determined to end the season differently.

Big Horn returns the vast majority of its starters from last year’s 9-2 squad that lost the state championship in the final minute against Pine Bluffs. The plethora of talent and experience means the Rams head into the season with immense expectations. All-State performers dot the top-ranked Rams’ roster, eager to prove their worth this year.

The team has set ambitious but not unreasonable goals: win a state championship and go undefeated.

“We’ve got high expectations and we’re going for it all,” head coach Kirk McLaughlin said. “We don’t want to settle for anything less than that.”

The Rams begin their trek toward a state title with an inter-class season-opener Friday at home against Thermopolis. Big Horn last played Thermopolis in 2016, soundly defeating the Bobcats 53-8.

McLaughlin enters his first season leading the team after being defensive coordinator under Michael McGuire for six seasons. McGuire led the Rams to two state titles and two runner-up finishes during his tenure.

McGuire’s absence leaves big shoes to fill, but fortunately for McLaughlin, the team closely resembles last season’s group. All of the team’s starters are upperclassmen and several already have two full years of starting time under their belts.

Moreover, McLaughlin has some experience as top man on the totem pole. He served as head coach for two years at a high school in Colorado before coming to Big Horn. McLaughlin will continue calling the defensive plays, with assistant coach Andrew Marcure directing the offense.

Pressure and expectations accompany the Rams, but that is nothing new for the program.

“People want to beat us,” McLaughlin said. “When Big Horn shows up, we have a target on our back, regardless of our ranking.”

Points shouldn’t be hard to come by this season for the Rams. The Big Horn offense was easily first in 1A in passing, rushing and total yardage last year and could be even better this season. Behind an experienced offensive line, quarterback Quinn McCafferty should have no trouble getting the ball into the hands of skilled position players like Kade Eisele, Will Pelissier, Kade VanDyken and Carson Bates.

The offense should be loaded again, but McLaughlin also has high hopes on the defensive side of the ball. He wants the team to lead the state in turnovers forced and rushing yards allowed per game.

“I expect us to dominate this year defensively,” McLaughlin said.

The Rams will rely on their offensive and defensive lines, led by All-State performers Seth Mullinax and Nolan Rader, to get things going.

“If they’re playing well, we’re going to play well as a team,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve got the athletes to turn moderate plays into big plays, but it all starts up front.”

Similarly, the team motto this year is “Finish the fight.”

It means ending the season strong but also concluding games and practices well. Last year, the Rams had a few games where they took their foot off the gas in the second half. This year, they plan to take control early in games and not let up.

If practices lack the requisite intensity, coaches sometimes bring up last year’s loss in the state championship game to serve as motivation.

“If I need to stoke the fire a little bit, there are certain things I can say to maybe get them refocused,” McLaughlin said.

Along with working hard, McLaughlin said he will try to enjoy being around the large group of seniors for the final time.

“We’re focused, we want to win, but it’s not [all] serious,” McLaughlin said. “We’re going to have some fun this year.”

The Rams want to end the year on a high note in November. For now, though, they must start the season on the right foot.

The game kicks off Friday at 6 p.m. at Big Horn High School.