As the snow fell Saturday, I was struck by a couple of things:
First, this game, against a better, more successful, MIAC-champion St. John's was markedly better than the shutout the Oles suffered last year. St. Olaf had more fight, more energy. The Oles lost 26-6 in 2014, compared to 31-0 last year.
Second, I can say that most of the games this season were closer. They were better-played.
All season long, I have praised the boys in Black and Old Gold for their resiliency, for their perserverance, for their fight. For staying positive and staying together. But I also think there is something else that needs to be pointed out: They were a better team, in many respects, this year.
I know, they finished the year with an identical 1-9 overall record. But there are some significant differences in how these young men played the games, how well they competed and the improvement they showed.
Last year, it was a veteran team that was trying to absorb new offensive and defensive systems. And they struggled. Recruited to play one way, they were the proverbial square pegs shoved into round holes. They did their best, but they were often understandably frustrated. New systems, new coaches and injuries all sucked some of the air out of the balloon last season.
This year? This year, a mostly young team dominated by sophomores and juniors was better versed in the systems it was asked to play. It also seemed to have more excitement, more energy. And the guys played better.
Consider the games against Luther, Gustavus, Augsburg, Hamiline, Carleton and St. John's. All were losses this year, just as last year.But they were much more competitive -- with the Oles beating the hated Worms this year, whereas they lost last season.
The Hamline game? Lost on a last second play. The Gustavus game? Lost when the Oles could not score after recovering an onside kick and getting into position to possibly tie. The games that the Oles lost big -- to Top Ten teams Concordia, St. Thomas and Bethel -- were big losses, to be sure. But the overall feeling this season, even while playing very inexperienced players, was that there was more fight in the dog.
The few seniors the Oles had were invaluable leaders and top-notch players. The team's two leading receivers -- Joel Reinhardt and Alex Nelson -- are leaving. They create a huge void. Two of the three starting defensive linemen -- Colin Brown and Chad Wagner -- are seniors. This team will sorely miss their toughness and physicality. A third senior defensive lineman, Kyle Foster, would have been one of the better players in the conference if his season wasn't ended by another concussion. On the offensive line, the Oles lose Laish Boyd and Nate Carlson, two tough upperclassmen.
But if there is an advantage to having a team with so few seniors, it is this: A whole lot of underclassmen who gained pivotal playing experience are returning to the squad next year.
Four full-time or part-time starters on the offensive line return -- Griffin Baumeister, Ted Dietz, Jaylen Jones and Justin Schmid. The Oles also return several talented freshmen on the line -- including Kjell Bakken, who started a couple games. So the future looks bright.
Another bright spot is starting quarterback Nate Penz, who passed for nearly 1,700 yards and 10 touchdowns. The junior co-captain returns for his senior season. So does starting running back J.J. Strnad, who rushed for 743 yards and six touchdowns. J.J. was excellent in his last several games, dominant even. J.J. is big, physical and fast... a tough combination to bring down. Bryan Aviles comes back, having flashed speed and quickness in several games.
Freshman receivers Connor Yahn and Troy Peterson gained valuable playing time all season, with Peterson scoring a couple of touchdowns. Juniors Matthew Livingston and Connor McCormick are experienced receivers and runners. Tight end/H Back Keenan Gladd-Brown returned from injury late to make several positive plays.
On defense, all the starting linebackers but one -- Dylan McDonough -- are back in 2015. Nick Golberg, Ethan Lunning, Colton Yahn and David Jean all are back. So is Danny Opitz. All started games this year. Sam Kuss made several big plays as a reserve.
On the defensive line, big John Bennett, who was dominant in several games this year, is back. So are promising youngsters Sung-Min Kang and Damone Coachman.
Every single defensive back who played this season also returns, including Coleman Foley, the MIAC's leading tackler, and Tyler Vadjic, who led the team in interceptions. Seamus Walsh, second on the team in tackles and in the top 20 in the MIAC, returns for his senior season. Safety Brice Peterson, who was among the league leaders in tackles and snared an interception against the Johnnies, returns. As do corners Kyle Keenan and Riley Hedstrom, a freshman who started several games at corner. Oliver West gained valuable time at safety as well. Spencer Malick played well at corner, before being sidelined by injury.
There is a lot to work with there, and defensive coordinator Justin Lerfald is sure to get even more improvement out of the squad going into next year.
Still, the Oles are going to need a good, and big, recruiting class to begin laying a thicker foundation for success. That is a given. They need speed, some game-breakers. They need a lot.
St. Olaf has suffered in the numbers game over the past two seasons. Assistant Coach Eric Yuen, the Oles' recruiting coordinator, has instituted a structured and ambitious program to refill the Oles' roster. His and the other coaches' success in convincing young men who are good students AND good football players to come to the hill will have much to do with whether the Oles return to their success of seasons past.
But watching these young men through the snow on Saturday, I couldn't help but feel that the program has turned a corner. So many of them had never played substantial minutes before, yet, here they were, slugging it out with the MIAC champs on a day when the grounds crew needed leaf blowers to clear the sidelines and yardlines. It was fun to see them having so much fun. It was encouraging to see them play with such abandon.
Hope certainly does spring enternal. But as my wife Heidi and I look forward to our last year as Ole football parents, I think that hope is well-placed. In these young men. In these coaches. In St. Olaf football.