Thursday
Sep182014

Post-game activities

One of the things I have always loved about MIAC football is that at the end of the game, fans and family can go down to the field and join their favorite players for hugs, conversations, photos and family time.

It is a chance for moms and dads to connect with their sons and see how they are doing. It is a chance for players to ask for money. Just kidding.   Mostly.

But it is also an opportunity to glimpse the humanity and resilience of these young men. After a loss, how are they holding up? After a win...  well, it's well past time for one of those. Saturday, after the loss to Luther at Manitou Field, I watched as two Ole players set aside their aches and pains, their disappointment with the loss, to play. They played catch. With fans. Fans with special needs who had come to the game to cheer on Nate Penz and his teammates.

So how did Nate Penz and Tyler Vajdic repay those fans? By playing with them on the field. By taking the time to share joy with those whose smiles said everything.

Tyler and Nate still were in uniform. They had not yet retreated to their locker room sanctuary. And they seemed in no hurry to do so. All I could see were smiles, as the players and the fans ran around. All I could hear were laughs and encouragement.

I am sure that other schools have players willng to share the joys of their game. I am just not sure that other teams have players willing to share after a loss. Each week, I watch as Oles take the time post-game to greet parents, grandparents, friends, fans... with a smile. With hugs. With such generosity of spirit that it coaxes me to smile as I write this. 

So, here is a lesson these players have given me... and, I hope, give to you. How do I deal with disappointment in my life? How do I respond to bad news? Can I remember to show grace and generosity to others in my life, depite how my day has gone?

Nate and Tyler ... and so many other Oles... are not only showing me that I can.

They show me that I should.

Sunday
Sep142014

Hearts of lions

Coaches routinely talk about senior leadership.

It means that the most experienced players on the team also are the ones who set the example for the others: How to win, how to lose with dignity. How to battle, despite frustration or injury or disappointment.

This year's St. Olaf squad does not have many seniors to draw upon for leadership. Just a handful from a class that was never large -- not as freshmen and, because of a number of factors since, not as seniors. But it would be a mistake to say the Oles do not have senior leadership. What they lack in numbers, they possess in quality of character and quantity of fight.

Two seniors who stood out to me on Saturday: Nate Carlson and Joel Reinhardt.

They come from different backgrounds, play very different positions. Nate is the center, the growler, the battler, who scraps in the trenches and claws to open holes for Ole running backs and keep clean the uniform of quarterback Nate Penz. Joel is the smart, smooth, sure-handed receiver who seemingly hauls in any pass thrown in a nearby area code.Yet, both are providing sparkling senior leadership, through their play and the example they set for their teammates.

Saturday, during a tough battle against Luther College that St. Olaf lost 20-3 despite winning most of the statistical battle, Joel set a St. Olaf football record for receptions with 19 catches for 112 yards. I will repeat that. Joel had 19 catches. In one game.

If it were unusual for Joel to play like that, to dominate the stat sheet, you could chalk it all up to simply having a career day. But he's done it before. Last season, against Carleton, Joel had nine catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns. Such days are not the result of serendipity, but of his hard work and dedication to becoming the best player and leader he can be. A former star athlete at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, Joel transferred to St. Olaf for his sophomore season. He has become in his three years on the hill one of the best, most complete slot receivers in the MIAC.

Nate? For three seasons, the Shakopee native has toiled and worked and kept his head up, despite limited playing time. Despite three years of being behind someone on the depth chart. But this season, the Ole center who is the son of an Ole center has taken over the starting job. And, in two games, he has shown the tenaciousness and fire that successful offensive linemen need. A truth about football is that players at the "skill" positions -- players like Joel and Nate Penz -- wouldn't have the success they have without pluggers like Nate Carlson doing the dirty work. The fact is, center is usually only noticed when he makes a mistake.

Nate Carlson has been beautifully incognito for two games now.

More important than the stats, however, has been their leadership. And that leadership will be even more critical during the remaining eight games of this season. This Oles team, young and outnumbered, is 0-2, struggling to find the right combination of execution and good fortune for victory. Yes, silver linings are nice... but wins would be nicer. There has not been a win for a while now.

But the fact remains that these boys are building a foundation for sustained success. Maybe not next week, maybe not in ways measured by the sports writers. Yet, they are building something strong that will carry them to success on the field and, more importantly, in life long after the last whistle has blown.

Leadership by Nate Carlson and Joel Reinhardt, and all the seniors, is keeping this team focused, playing hard and playing for each other. You could see that Saturday against Luther. Oles were flying all over the field, hitting, tackling and not giving up. This group of young men is already extraordinary to me, for how they support each other and fight until the end of every game -- regardless of the score. But the lessons they are learning from the seniors run even even deeper, and will echo for years to come.

That, my friends, is leadership.

 

Sunday
Sep072014

Oles fall 17-16.

Head Coach Craig Stern said it: He hates losing. He told the team after they dropped a hard-fought game to Northwestern that he hates losing more than he enjoys winning.

Judging by the faces of the young men gathered around him in the south end zone of Northwestern's brand new stadium Saturday night, he had a lot of company in his dislike -- for the result, for the loss, for the feeling in the pits of their stomachs that they could have changed the game with just one more play here, one more tackle there.

But that is exactly how football works. The team that makes that extra play, they usually win. The team that does not? They talk about what could have been, with that one more play.

For St. Olaf, a team building something new with mostly youngsters starting their first game for the Oles, it was a painful lesson. They did some things very, very well. They made some plays that looked very good. But, in the end, it was just short of victory.

Quarterback Nate Penz looked calm and cool under pressure, hitting some big passes. Senior receiver Joel Reinhardt scored the Oles' first touchdown and had a number of receptions. Running back JJ Strnad had more than 100 yards rushing and a touchdown. Senior receiver Alex Nelson had some key catches for first downs. But the offense was unable to score in the second half and add to its lead... allowing Northwestern an opening for a comeback.

On defense, Colin Brown and Colten Yahn and Seamus Walsh and Kyle Keenan and Ethan Lunning and David Jean played well -- for the most part. But the defense was on the field too long, unable in the final drive to make that all important last stop, as Northwestern took the lead with about a minute to play.

The moral in all of this? Good plays and good players are not always enough to win. Sometimes, it's when you make the play that matters most. Sometimes, that key first down, that extra score, that pivotal stop are the difference between playing well and losing ... and playing better, and winning.

This team WILL learn that, I am sure. These Oles, with so few seniors and so many juniors, sophomores and even a few freshmen filling key roles for the first time in their college careers, HAVE to learn that. There are nine more games, at least, to go.

And no one likes losing.

 

Saturday
Aug302014

It's finally here

It starts now.

All the anticipation, all the preparation, all the summer work and sweat and protein shakes and weightlifting and running are over. The 2014 season is about to begin and my anticipation is high.

Sure, there are questions. Will this squad, down in numbers but strong on talent and work ethic, stay healthy? Will these boys -- the new and the veterans -- be able to improve on the disappointing record of last season? Will this be the year that St. Olaf football turns the tide back to the familiar territory of conference contender?

I watched the Mock Game Saturday, the closing chapter of fall camp. But I was fortunate that Head Coach Craig Stern and his assistants allowed me to watch practice this past week. Every practice, from Monday through Thursday. And this is what I can see:

This is a skilled team, with playmakers on offense who will move the ball and score points. Senior receiver Joel Reinhardt and junior quarterback Nate Penz look poised and polished and ready to dominate. Alex Nelson returns with big play potential. Running backs JJ Strnad and Bryan Aviles have speed and toughness. The offensive line -- with Nate Carlson, Laish Boyd, Jaylen Jones, Justin Schmid, and Griffin Baumeister -- is big, and has more than a little nasty in it. That's a good thing.

Talented first year players will supplement this returning core to give the Oles speed and strength. They just cannot suffer too many injuries ... or have the injuries last long. If they stay healthy, this offense will make its mark.

This is a fast, hard-hitting team. The defense, counting heavily on speedy and beefy sophomores and juniors in key positions, will be more stingy than last season. If they stay healthy, this team will make it tougher for opponents to move the ball and get into the end zone. Senior defensive ends Chad Wagner and Colin Brown look to dominate opponents, while linebackers David Jean, Nick Golberg, Ethan Lunning and Colten Yahn will swarm to the ball. Defensive backs Seamus Walsh, Brice Peterson, Kyle Keenan, Coleman Foley, Oliver West and Tyler Vajdic will work to limit opposing passing attacks.

This is a dedicated team. It was clear during the week that these Oles not only will work hard and play hard for their coaches, but they will fight for each other. These young men genuinely enjoy being around one another. And they clearly have bought into the message that the coaching staff is hammering home: Work hard, be thorough, play to the best of your abiities and we will beat some teams this year.

This is a smart, talented and cohesive coaching staff. From Stern, to offensive coordinator Vince Varpness, defensive coordinator Justin Lerfald and all the other assistants, they were positive, yet demanding; tough, yet approachable, during fall camp. Their energy and enthusiasm for this team and this season is obvious -- and contagious. If this team stays healthy, they will beat some people who will not expect the Oles to beat them. They will win some games the press and the pundits do not expect them to win.

But they need to stay healthy. Unlike the teams traditionally at the top of the MIAC, the Oles do not go three and four deep at every position. The talents of the training staff will be just as important as the talents of the players and coaches for the Oles to climb back into the league's upper tier.

Can they do it? Yes. If they stay healthy.

The waiting to find out is just about over. The season is finally here.

 

Wednesday
Jul092014

A new season is coming

As summer continues, many of us are eagerly anticipating a new season of St. Olaf football. The players in our homes, certainly, are getting ready with summer workouts and running.

And eating.

I am looking forward to seeing how far these young men advance on what was a trying and challenging season of change, of injury, of loss and losses. While they found many things to celebrate in a season that saw too few wins, we can admit it will all feel better with a few more victories in 2014.

I know they have a great set of captains ready to lead them. I know they have a great group of coaches, ready to teach them. I anticipate that we will be a strong and supportive group of parents and alumns, ready to support them.

It's not that far away, folks. The boys will be back on the hill in just over a month. Honestly, I can hardly wait.