For this year’s graduating seniors, a group that didn’t win a game during their sophomore season, there’s no question this year was a resounding a success.
At one point last season, the Watertown-Mayer football team was still in the midst of a 21-game losing streak. By the end of this season, however, the Royals were playing a game with the conference championship on the line.
It was a tremendous amount of progress in a short amount of time for the Royals. But despite all that, head coach Craig Johnson said it was incredibly difficult to watch the way the playoff picture unfolded in the Royals’ section. When Jordan was the team that emerged from the section to earn a state tournament berth, it was hard not for the Royals to feel that it should have been them instead.
Jordan was the team the Royals snapped their losing streak against last year. Jordan was a team that had won only once in the last two years entering the playoffs this season. Jordan was a team that tied for last place in the Minnesota River Conference this year. But in the end, it was Jordan that grabbed a state tournament berth that Johnson and his team know was there for the taking.
“It’s just hard,” Johnson said. “When you’ve been at this a long time, you understand that you don’t get many opportunities like this. We had a great opportunity and we let it slip by.”
The Royals first-round loss to Norwood Young America may have put a damper on the end of the season in the short term, but in the big picture, this was a season in which the Royals should be able to take tremendous pride. The Royals finished in third place in the MRC and had the whole town buzzing with a 4-0 start that took virtually everybody by surprise. In the end, the Royals’ 6-3 record marked the first time the program has finished at least .500 since 2002, and was the best record since the Royals finished 8-4 in 2001.
“The night of the Norwood Young America loss, I said I was so terribly frustrated to the point of anger,” Johnson recalls. “But I also told them we’re going to look back in time and say wow, we made just tons of strides. This group of seniors, when they were sophomores, didn’t win a game, and many of those games weren’t competitive. … There’s been nice advancements each year, and we’re going to have to work real hard to keep moving forward.”
Johnson said a favorable early-season schedule helped his team build confidence, and it was clear that the team’s running attack — the Royals regularly rushed for 300 or more yards early in the season — was a big part of the success. Part of that ability to run the ball stemmed from having a more mobile quarterback in the lineup this year, as well as the emergence of a talented halfback and fullback.
However, teams began to create problems for the Royals late in the season when they began to do everything possible to take away Watertown-Mayer’s ground game.
“It really was that three-headed monster for awhile,” Johsnon said of quarterback Nick Tschida, halfback Joe Reinert and fullback Max Zitzloff, all of whom were among five Royals to earn first-team all-conference honors. “Then, as teams saw what we were doing, they started loading everything up and saying if you want to beat us, you’re going to have to throw the ball. We just didn’t throw the ball effectively enough to take advantage of that situation.”
When the Royals won games, they did so largely because they dominated teams up front. That was reflected in the all-conference team, where, in addition to the three members of the offensive backfield, four offensive or defensive linemen earned first-team or honorable-mention honors. That group included defensive/end tight end Luke Sandquist and offensive guard/defensive tackle Nick Burns, who both made the first team, as well as center/defensive tackle David Gallus and tackle Jon Ernst, who both received honorable mention honors.
Here is a closer look at each of the honorees for the Royals.
Joe Reinert, RB, Sr.: Reinert, a two-year starter at running back, led the team this year with 941 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry, and was known for his quick cuts and big-play ability. He also led the team in return yardage with 49 punt return yards and 243 kick return yards, with one touchdown.
“He had an outstanding senior year and outstanding intensity,” Johnson said. “He has great quickness and vision — things you can’t coach. “He was able to find room and see things I couldn’t even dream of seeing.”
Nick Tschida, QB, Sr.: Tschida was a three-year starter at safety whose 59 tackles this season ranked him second on the team. However, it was his play on offense stepping into the starting quarterback role that stood out the most. He threw for 616 yards and six touchdowns, but was most dangerous with his feet, finishing with 440 rushing yards and six touchdowns. He also drew frequent praise from Johnson throughout the season for the way he directed the team’s offense.
“He was a good leader for us,” Johnson said. “He was very effective reading the option game and running the ball. I thought he had a great year.”
Nick Burns, OG/DT, Sr.: Burns started every game at right guard and rotated through at defensive tackle and inside linebacker. His unique combination of strength and speed also made him an outstanding special teams player.
“He really flourished in his senior year,” Johnson said. “I thought he was our best lineman. He was our most physical, and he is a very hard worker.”
Luke Sandquist, TE/DE, Jr.: Sandquist led the team in receiving with 15 catches for 300 yards and two touchdowns, but he likely found his way onto the all-conference team mostly because of his defense. As a shutdown defensive end, he was unblockable at times. He recorded 40 tackles, including six for a loss, and a team high three sacks. He also blocked a punt.
“Luke’s just an outstanding player with a great upside,” Johnson said. He’s athletic, he’s tough, and he’s coming back. That’s always a positive.”
Max Zitzloff, FB/LB, Sr.: Zitzloff, a two-year starter at linebacker and a team co-captain, was a key contributor on both sides of the ball this season. On defense, he finished with 49 tackles, and on offense, he was the team’s second-leading rusher with 445 yards and five touchdowns. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry.
“He’s just a physical, tough player,” Johnson said. “He’s a determined runner and a great tackler.”
David Gallus, C/DT, Sr.: “He really flourished his senior year,” Johnson said. “He spent most of his time at tackle his junior year, but we moved him back to center this year. He was a great snap guy for the shotgun and as a longsnapper, and he played solid defense.”
Jon Ernst, OT/DT, Jr.: “He had very high intensity and he always put the team first,” Johnson said. “He was a very good offensive lineman and a solid defensive lineman.”