It's safe to assume the West Fargo Sheyenne boys basketball team's days of sneaking up on people are over.
After reaching the Class A State Tournament for the first time in 2016-17, the Mustangs captured an Eastern Dakota Conference championship last season, then got all the way to the state championship game, where they fell 63-56 to Bismarck Century.
Having quickly risen up the Class-A ranks, Mustang players have seen the perception of the program change in short order.
"Everybody's now focused on us and knows what we're capable of," senior guard Christian Kuntz said. "We have a target on our back."
That target has only intensified the Mustangs' need to be at their best on a nightly basis, something that may be difficult early in the season.
Graduation hit Sheyenne hard this offseason, as the Mustangs were forced to part with four starters. Among the departed were Zach Westphal, a 19.8-per game scorer, and Kemal Hajric, who led the EDC with 11.8 rebounds per game a season ago.
Coach Tom Kirchoffner knows the challenges of replacing such production and isn't planning to do so with just one player. Luckily, he feels he has enough strong role players to step in and fill what is a sizeable void.
"(The key is) just having depth," Kirchoffner said. "I think that's one thing we've done well with our team is having depth. Playing eight, nine guys. I think it's going to be committee scoring."
That depth was on full display in Sheyenne's season opener Saturday, when four players scored in double figures in a 65-60 win over Mandan.
Blake Berg, who scored a team-best 17 against Mandan, is joined by fellow 6-foot-3 guard Tyler Terhark in the backcourt. Backing them up will be senior TJ Thomas and juniors Nathan Goldade and Zion Dettmann.
Starting forward spots will be occupied by junior Chuck DuBois and senior Ryan Reynolds, who is returning from a series of foot injuries that cost him 21 games a season ago. Ben Kanega, who missed last season with a knee injury, is also expected to make strong contributions off the bench.
Leading the offensive charge will be Kuntz, a four-year starter who led the team in assists (92) and steals (38) while averaging nearly 17 points per game last season.
Having seen improved quickness and defensive tenacity from his senior point guard, Kirchoffner expects the Mustangs to play at a faster pace this year, orchestrating an offense that will "let Christian do Christian things."
Though he hasn't gotten many opportunities to do "Christian things" with this group on the varsity court, Kuntz doesn't feel he's starting from scratch, saying he's developed a strong on-court rapport with most of his teammates coming up through the youth ranks.
"I've played with a lot of these guys. We have good chemistry," he said. "We're still working out the kinks a little bit...but we're ready. I think we can go out and do the same things we did last year."
Like most coaches this time of year, Kirchoffner is hesitant to make any definitive predictions, though he clearly sees this team as a serious threat to once again make noise by season's end.
"We just want to put ourselves in position that favors us when it comes to the EDC Tournament," he said. I think our conference is going to be unique this year and we're just excited for the challenge."