When the Watertown-Mayer football team finished with a 6-3 record last year, it marked the first time in a decade that the Royals finished at or above .500.
Not only did the Royals soar right past the .500 mark, they even battled for a Minnesota River Conference title all the way until the season’s final week. Certainly, the players and coaches must have been thrilled with a season that few people outside the program saw coming.
Or were they?
“I think there’s actually a certain amount of dissatisfaction with last year,” said Watertown-Mayer’s Craig Johnson, who is entering his fourth year as the program’s head coach. “We were sitting at 6-1 going into the end of the season, had a chance to win the conference championship and came up a little short, and then absolutely laid an egg in the first round of the playoffs in a situation we felt we had a nice opportunity to make it all the way to the state tournament. It’s hard to deal with that.”
To not be satisfied with a second-place finish in the conference shows just how far the Watertown-Mayer football program has come in a few short seasons. Just a few years ago, the Royals suffered a 21-game losing streak that spanned multiple seasons.
Last year, the Royals roared out of the gates, posting nearly 100 points in their first two games alone on their way to a 4-0 start. However, the Royals lost three of their final five games, including a first-round playoff loss to Norwood Young America, the same last-place team from the MRC that the Royals also struggled to beat just a few weeks earlier.
“That’s weighing on not only the coaches, but probably even more so on the players,” Johnson said. “I think they’ve come into the year with a little more determination. Our theme for the year is to finish strong, because we did not do that last year.”
The Royals have plenty of talent to once again challenge for a Minnesota River Conference title, but will have to overcome a good deal of turnover at some of the offensive skill positions. Gone are starting quarterback Nick Tschida, halfback Joe Reinert and fullback Max Zitzloff, all of whom earned some sort of all-conference honors last season, and together accounted for 1,826 of the team’s 2,009 rushing yards (91 percent) and 26 of the team’s 28 rushing touchdowns.
As of late last week, two juniors — Nick Parker and Brett Johnson — were still battling to replace Tschida at quarterback. Coach Johnson said the team’s scrimmage last weekend would go a long way in settling that battle, though he added that both would likely get opportunities in most games.
While the team did lose the bulk of its rushing production from last year, it does return some experience in the backfield, and should feature some depth. The likely candidates to earn the starting nods at running back are senior Jesse Bushman at halfback and senior Logan Cooper at fullback. Bushman carried the ball 14 times for 41 years and a touchdown last year, and also saw extensive action as a kick returner. Cooper had 14 carries for 62 yards.
Other players will also push for carries in the backfield, including junior Ryne Alger, senior Aaron Sweeney, junior Jordan Berrios and junior Cole Durand.
“I think we have a bevy of guys that can do it,” Johnson said of the running back position. “There’s just a load of guys we can put in there.”
The most experienced group on offense for Watertown-Mayer will be it’s tight ends and receivers, where the Royals feature the type of size and athleticism any coach would covet. Jack Nolan (6-4, 190) is expected to start at the strong side tight end spot, while Luke Sandquist (6-5, 200) returns at the weak side tight end spot, where he can also be split out wide. Hunter Hulley (6-3, 175), a state place-winner in the high jump last track season, will return to the flanker spot. Last year, Sandquist led the team with 15 catches for 300 yards and two touchdowns, and Hulley caught 12 balls for 116 yards.
“We have good height and athleticism at the receive position, so we’re excited about that,” Johnson said.
Up front, the Royals will be replacing the entire right side of its offensive line. Left tackle Jon Ernst (6-0, 220) and left guard Cody Wagner (6-2, 190) return for their senior seasons, while others will be looking to prove themselves this year. Senior Wyatt Pouliot (6-3, 190), who saw extensive playing time last season, seems to have a firm grasp on the center spot, and junior Bill Stauffer (5-11, 195), who saw most of his action at the end of last year, would seem to be the starter at right guard. Senior Ben Hayden (6-3, 210) and junior Andrew Ziegenhagen (6-0, 190) were both battling for the starting spot at right tackle as of late last week.
Defensively, the Royals will be experienced up front on the outside, but looking to fill in some gaps on the inside. Sandquist and Hulley are back at the defensive ends, and Bushman and Cooper are back as outside linebackers. Ernst is returning at one of the defensive tackle spots, but the Royals will need to find somebody to complement him there. The Royals will also be looking for a pair of inside linebackers as well, with players like senior Mike Hetrick, junior Nate Zellman, junior Zach Iten, and Ziegenhagen in the mix.
In the defensive backfield, Brett Johnson returns as a starter, and Alger, who saw plenty of playing time last year, figures to also lock down a starting spot. Sweeney, Cam Killian, Tyler Nelson, Bryce Duske and Berrios all figure to battle for playing time at the third spot.
It remains to be seen just how good the Royals will be this year, but Johnson believes one thing is certain: the Royals’ will face some stiffer competition. In their section, Glencoe-Silver Lake was added this year, bringing some additional weight into what last year was a very light section. Johnson said GSL, Providence Academy and Watertown-Mayer would likely be the three favorites in the section.
As far as the Minnesota River Conference goes, Johnson said he sees as many as five teams that could win it.
“I think it’s possible we could have a slightly better team this year, but maybe a tougher road in the conference, because I think the conference is going to be up,” he said. “I think TCU and Mayer Lutheran are going to be right at the top, and I’d like to think we could compete at the top. I think Belle Plaine is going to be improved and I think Jordan is going to be improved. We just have to prepare the best we can and see what happens.”
The Royals will get their first taste of game action Thursday, Aug. 29, when they host Rockford at 7 p.m. Last year, the Royals opened the season with a 52-20 win on the road. After a second-week matchup with Belle Plaine, the MRC schedule seems to favor the Royals early on before a gauntlet of games against Tri City United, Mayer Lutheran and Jordan to close the season.
Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]