As another senior, this time co-captain linebacker Sam Kuss, hobbled off the field with an injury on Saturday, I was struck with a realization.
This was a young football team at the start of the season. It is an EXTREMELY young football team now, four games into the 2015 campaign. We need to embrace that, because it bodes well for the Oles in the long run.
Yes, several upper classman continue to lead the Oles in several categories. Senior quarterback Nate Penz leads the offense. Senior running back Connor McCormick has filled in admirably for injured senior running back J.J. Strnad. Seniors Keenan Gladd-Brown and Jaylen Jones and Junior Ted Dietz are playing well on the offensive line, even after an injury to senior guard Justin Schmid.
On defense, senior safety Brice Peterson leads the Oles in tackles, with junior Colton Yahn and senior Seamus Walsh working to fill the gap left by injured junior Coleman Foley. Seniors David Jean and Ethan Lunning continue working, especially now that senior co-captain Sam Kuss has been hurt. Junior Danny Opitz just got back from an injury and rejoins the defense. Senior corners Tyler Vajdic and Kyle Keenan are playing well. All those upper classmen will be key to this team's success over the second half of the season.
But, ready or not, St. Olaf's talented underclassman are now getting a baptism of fire during the Oles' most difficult stretch of the schedule. At least 18 freshmen and several sophomores played significant minutes against the Cobbers on Saturday.
Sophomore receiver Troy Peterson led the Oles in receptions, with 8 catches for 106 yards and a touchdown. Jorgen Salveson, a sophomore, caught the winning touchdown pass against Northwestern and will be counted on to continue making plays.
Tommy Fleetham, a freshman defensive back who filled in for Coleman Foley, had 9 total tackles in his first start of the season. Freshmen offensive linemen Jack Klein and Tyler Hilgers have started since the first game are are doing well. Freshmen defensive linemen Marquis Ross and Keion Samuel have joined sophomore Damone Coachman on the starting unit, while freshmen Sam Stuckmayer, Lorenzo Sannibale, Kellen Jacobs and Hunter Vattes-Dixon have gotten more and more playing time. Freshman linebacker Lucas Dahl was getting a lot of time on the field before suffering an injury against Bethel.
In truth, they are having their ups... and their downs. Guess what? That is what happens to freshmen, no matter how talented. College football and, more importantly, the level of competiton in college football ramps up that much higher than high school. The things that worked for a young man as a high school senior don't often work as a college freshman. They have to learn new techniques, add strength. Increase their bulk. Playing so many youngsters who have yet to grow into their man bodies... or into their newfound roles... can prove challenging.
At one point in the Oles' 37-7 loss to Concordia Saturday, Defensive Coordinator Justin Lerfald said, six freshmen were playing defense on the field at the same time. Many of these young men came to St. Olaf knowing they would have a chance to get significant playing time for a rebuilding Oles squad. Now, many of them are.
That holds much promise for St. Olaf football because, I guarantee you, tossing these young men into the ring against big, bad Bethel, Concordia, St.Thomas and St. John's is going to benefit them in a big way down the road. In a year, or two, they will be savvy veterans who will play older than their age, better than their years. Now? Now, they and the other Oles are fighting with all their heart and determination to stay competitive against the big guns of the MIAC. And that may mean games like Saturday, where the Oles had moments of inspired play and success... but made too many mistakes and got pushed around a little too much by the bigger Cobbers.
What it all means for the juniors and seniors, some of whom have had their seasons end and some of whom are coming back from injury, is to continue to play hard and with passion and with grit. At 1-3, St. Olaf still has much to play for this season -- and it still has meaningful, winnable games left to play. The older players have a duty to keep busting their tails to get better -- and to help the young players improve.
Because, while it may not be noticeable to some, they are showing better results at this point of the season this year than last. They are playing tougher, staying closer, than they did against the same opponents as last year. And last year was an improvement over the year before.
The truth is this: This team is growing, although with more growing pains than many of us want them to endure. And they are playing better, although I know they would enjoy a few more wins. Much of that improvement is thanks to the leadership and skill of the seniors and juniors AND thanks to the enthusiam and energy of the freshmen and sophomores.
In the midst of the job, rebuilding a football team can be a frustrating and slow process. But, St. Olaf is making the necessary steps. Even if it has to play some of those freshmen a lot more and a lot earlier than, perhaps, originally planned.
In the end, this youth movement will serve St. Olaf well. Even if that means a couple more bumps and bruises along the way.
The Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference each week, in its recap of game action across the conference, notes each team's top performers. In what was otherwise a tough loss, these three Oles had noteworthy performances:
First was running back Connor McCormick, a senior from Caledonia, who started the game in place of the injured J.J. Strnad. Connor garnered 159 rushing yards and 32 receiving yards in a stellar effort.
Next was Oles safety Brice Peterson, a senior from Northfield. For the second week in a row, Brice was the Oles leading tackler. He recorded 9 total stops against the Royals, 4 solo.
David Jean, a senior linebacker from Orlando, Fla., was the third Ole to be recognized. David tallied 8 tackles, a quarterback sack and a tackle for loss.
Our sons have been playing this game for years, many of them since they were little boys. During every game, on any play, we knew it could be over in an instant. They could get hurt, lose interest, decide to try a different fall sport. Fall in love... Get a job.
A week ago Saturday, standing in the end zone after the loss at Luther College, I talked with my son and with another dad and his son. We talked about the disappointment of losing games. Of how it never gets easier. We all want to win. We all work to win.
Knowing that this stretch of games was coming against the powerful teams of the MIAC -- Bethel, Concordia, St. Thomas -- I thought about why our sons play still. And I thought about what these games will mean, even if they result in losses.
I mean, a win cannot be the only reward to playing this game. What sense would it make to continue to play if your only enjoyment came from topping the scoreboard? We talked then, that dad and his son and my son, about the reward that comes from fighting, from playing despite long odds, from measuring yourself against the best players on the best teams in arguably the best league in Division III football. The reward that comes from continuing to play on, when so many on the outside scratch their heads and wonder why.
We all agreed, that day, that life is too short for such limited ways to measure it. This time to play this game is finite. It IS about more than who won and who lost. Each game, each play, each exertion of body and will must be its own reward. Our boys, now 20 and 21, only have so many games left, after all.
And then this week happened.
A linebacker broke his hand in practice. A couple of other players had to step away from the team. A starting running back, his quadriceps injured, was told to sit out the next couple of contests. Another running back got the same message. Others continued to nurse injuries that may keep them out another week, or two, or three.
And then the Bethel game -- a 49-3 loss -- happened.
A guard went down in a heap, his knee injured and painful. A linebacker went to the sidelines limping, his lower leg too painful to play. Then a defensive back, a top defender for the Oles and a top player in the MIAC, the same young man who I talked to with his father and my son after the Luther game, tore ligaments and broke a bone in his ankle making a tackle against Bethel. His season, now over. And the thought that has been going through my head became more and more clear.
This time our sons have, this opportunity to play college football, is a gift -- for them and for us. There was never a guarantee that they would conntinue to play this game past park board or our local youth athletic associations. Fewer still were expected to continue past high school. Now, they are Oles and they are playing with and against some of the best small college football players in the country.
Each practice, each play, each game is a wonderful gift of life and strength and courage and brotherhood. Nothing beyond this moment is certain for any of us. Illness, death, job loss, personal struggles -- all could derail us and our family life tomorrow.
In the same way, nothing beyond each moment in football is a given for our sons. Each day, they risk injury, they struggle to balance college and family with a game they still love to play. For some, that struggle ends prematurely. But, if you think about it, every play our sons have played in college is really a bonus -- they have gone well beyond what 98 percent of young football players EVER do. Even if it is just one play, they PLAYED college football!
We must cherish this amazing time they have given us, these moments where they have allowed us to continue watching them push themselves beyond the possible, to fight past fatique and pain and sadness... they have given us the gift of enjoying one more play, one more game, than we had any reason to expect.
For some of our sons, the season has ended because of injury or circumstance. For others, the season has been delayed while their bodies heal. The rest continue to fight. But all of us should take a moment to savor what we have witnessed and enjoy the gift these young men have given us -- of youth and passion and sacrifice.
Yes, the wins are nice and will be sweeter still when they come. But even in defeat, our boys have blessed us with reasons to cheer and to sing and to cherish their youth and their vitality and their love of the game and each other.
Enjoy the gift.
St. Olaf football was a great part of my life, and I suspect that you feel similarly. The St. Olaf Touchdown Club was founded to support current and former players and to give an opportunity for you to keep in touch with your teammates, friends and other alumni who feel the same way about St. Olaf football and want to continue the traditions.
We have come to a point in our organization where your input and support is necessary to continue. We need growth and renewal from within our TD Club organization. Most of us on the board of directors have served for many years. Our desire is that others will volunteer to take over the club and continue to support the program and further its founding initiatives.
In order to"pass the torch" the TD Club needs you to step up. We will meet before the homecoming game on Saturday, September 26, at 11 am in the meeting room at Porter Hall (the football facility at Manitou Field) to discuss transition and any other issues that you have. We hope to have a special guest appearance by Ryan Bowles, the new AD at St. Olaf. Please help to have a great start to the next era of St. Olaf football excellence, both on and off the field, by attending the meeting and volunteering to help.
Mark Fredrickson, ‘87