While observing his Hornets soccer team during a summer workout, Fulton head coach Joel Henley could see hints of promising possibilities.
Henley and his Hornets were moving on from a dreadful 1-23 finish in the 2019 season, capping off a bleak three-year stretch in which they were a combined 7-63.
Henley's modest ambition for his squad heading into the 2020 season was a reasonable request — to win five games.
"When the most you've won is three and you've struggled, and you're coming off of a 1-23 season, there's a part of you that wants to create a goal that's attainable," said Henley, who is in his fourth year directing Fulton. "We felt like going into the season, five wins, we can do that.
"I think it was there, a couple of weeks before July, that I saw that we've got some pieces, we can be OK, we can be good."
The Hornets surprisingly smashed Henley's win objective, more than tripling the mark while molding a magical season that produced their third district championship in school history and a return to the state playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Fulton's reward comes tonight when the Hornets (16-6) host the Pleasant Hill Roosters (15-4-2) in a Class 2 state quarterfinal clash at the high school athletic complex. Game time is set for 6 p.m.
Fulton — which owns a four-game winning streak — advanced in the postseason by rallying for a 3-2 victory over host Moberly for the District 6 title last Thursday night.
"Did I think we would win a district championship (this year)? No, I wasn't there yet," Henley said. "As the season went along, I definitely got to where I was going, 'Hey, this is the real deal.'
"We wanted to continue the culture and the process that we had begun, which was, 'If you guys will buy in, if you'll keep going, we're going to be OK, we're going to right the ship, we're going to turn it around,' and guys bought into that."
The offensive attack up front in the Hornets' 4-3-3 formation features junior forward Alban Dervishi in the center. Dervishi leads the team with both 19 goals and 43 points despite missing the first five games of the season.
"Alban is a goal scorer and that's why he's in the center," Henley said. "He's good with the ball on his foot, he's going to be able to make one, maybe two guys miss, and be able to get a shot off.
"He has a knack for scoring he's going to find the net."
Dervishi is joined up front by senior forward Mason Crane on the right and freshman forward Jayden Ayers on the left. Ayers has 12 goals and six assists (30 points), while Crane has logged five goals and four assists (14 points).
"He's fast, which has helped us tremendously," Henley said of Crane. "Mason does a really good job of getting down the field and serving the ball up and putting it in (the middle).
"Jayden's fast but he's strong. He can do some more things he'll put the ball on his foot and dribble a little bit more sometimes and come back to the middle, he'll shoot the ball, he'll make passes and he's not afraid to make contact with people."
Two key scoring sources for Fulton occupy the midfield with the brother combination of senior Clement Mahoro and freshman Christian Mahoro. Clement Mahoro has tallied 11 goals and 15 assists (37 points), while Christian Mahoro has supplied 10 goals and 16 assists (36 points).
"They communicate well with each other, they just connect so well and they know where each other is going to be," Henley said. "They're probably a couple of the most technical players I've ever seen.
"Christian can do things that I don't know how he does it sometimes. He's able to settle balls that I would never think people could settle. Clement showed me so much last year in being able to beat two and three players at a time."
The Hornets' third component in the midfield is senior defender Seth Windsor.
"Seth is a bulldog — he doesn't want to get beat," Henley said. "Not very many people are going to beat him. He's going to be physical — he might foul somebody to stop them, but he's not going to get beat there.
"He's going to play hard and he doesn't come off the field."
Fulton's back four defenders are comprised of senior Nathan Lowry on the left, another brother combo in junior Dillon Jones and sophomore Dalton Jones in the center, and sophomore Bahir Sherzad on the right.
Dillon Jones has recorded six goals this season, including five on free kicks and four game-winners.
"They've played together all year, they're good at staying together as a line," Henley said of his defensive quartet. "They communicate really well together, they cover for each other.
"When you do that, when you work together like that, you just kind of grow together. I think that's been the strength for them this year."
In goal for the Hornets is senior Logan Vanden Bosch, who is in his first year with the soccer team after playing football. Vanden Bosch has responded with an impressive 1.95 goals-against average and three shutouts.
"I can't be more proud of how Logan has played," Henley said. "He's learning all the time and he's asking questions. He's not afraid to go down (for a save), go toward somebody's feet — your face is there, your hands are there, your body's there."
Pleasant Hill reached the Class 2 quarterfinals by edging host Clinton 2-1 for the District 5 championship last Thursday night. The Roosters are guided by senior forward Evan Burns, who has scored a dazzling 59 goals this season.
"He's fast, he dribbles well, he's going to attack you," Henley said. "He'll play the ball off to No. 10 (senior Owen Bailey), and No. 10 is going to find him in space.
"If we don't respect him (Burns), if we don't knock him off his runs, if we don't make sure that we're covering each other, he's going to make a run in behind and he's going to be dangerous. He's definitely their guy and they're going to play through him."
When Fulton is attacking, Henley believes the Hornets can exploit Pleasant Hill's outside backs.
"We want to play our left and right forwards into the corner, and we want to get them one-on-one with those guys, or beating them and then taking that ball to a touch line, an end line, and then sending it back into the middle," Henley said.
Playing at home has been profitable for Fulton, where it's 7-1 this season. Henley, his coaching staff and his players are ecstatic to be hosting a state playoff game.
"It's exciting to be at your own place," Henley said. "I've noticed that around town, in the school, people are excited about what the soccer team is doing, so I think there's a little bit of a buzz.
"Our guys want to make the school proud, they want to make the community proud. They want Fulton soccer to be on the map again, especially this senior class. They had that goal when they came in, and I feel like — in some ways — they've probably accomplished that goal."
Ryan Boland can be reached
at (573) 826-2422, or on Twitter