Seven Royals earn MRC all-conference football honors

The Watertown-Mayer High School football team recently had seven players from its Minnesota River Conference championship team earn all-conference honors.

Five of them -— Jesse Bushman, Logan Cooper, Hunter Hulley, Brett Johnson and Luke Sandquist — earned first-team all-conference honors. The other two — Bill Stauffer and Cody Wagner — earned honorable-mention recognition.

Johnson was the lone junior among the first-team honorees. The first-year starting quarterback led the team in rushing attempts (141), yards (718) and touchdowns (10). He also threw for 735 yards and nine additional touchdowns, but it was his big-play ability on the ground that was the biggest difference maker for the Royals.

“He did an outstanding job leading the offense,” Watertown-Mayer coach Craig Johnson said. “He manages the game well, has a minimal number of mistakes, and he still has the ability to break a long one at any time.”

Bushman, the team’s senior running back and second-leading rusher, also made the first team. He finished with 534 yards on just 60 carries for a team-best 8.9 yards per carry. His 62 tackles at linebacker also tied for the second-most on the team’s defense.

“He’s an outstanding leader,” Johnson said. “He’s the consummate team player and just an all-around outstanding kid.”

At wide receiver, Hulley added an extra dimension to the Royals’ offense, and his penchant for long touchdown receptions helped set the tone in several wins this year. Hulley finished with a team-high 24 catches for 372 yards and five touchdowns. He also matched Bushman with 62 tackles from his defensive end spot, tied for the second-most on the team.

“He made outstanding improvements as an athlete and leader from last year to this year,” Johnson said. “He has tremendous upside. I know he’s interested in playing at the college level. With his improvement from last year to this year, if he can continue on that, he’ll be successful at the college level as well.”

Sandquist brought a physically dominant presence to the Royals on both offense and defense. He was a true game changer, especially at defensive end, where he finished with 11.5 sacks and three tackles for loss among his 34 tackles, and was named the MRC’s defensive lineman of the year. On special teams, he also averaged 37.9 yards per punt, with six of his 29 kicks being downed inside the 20, and he also blocked a kick. At tight end, he caught 11 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown.

“He’s just a true warrior,” Johnson said of the senior. “He’s just a bright, hard-working kid. He’s as tough as they come. He’s fought through injuries each of the last two years, yet he’s on the field for most of every game on offense, defense and special teams. He fights through injuries and figures out ways to get on the field.”

Cooper, a senior fullback and linebacker, rounded out the Royals first-team selections. He finished with 233 yards on 50 carries at fullback, and scored five touchdowns on offense. At linebacker, he finished with 54 tackles, including one sack.

“He’s a hard-working player that always brought a physical presence to the football team,” Johnson said. “He’s very determined because he wants to be the best he can be, and he’s worked hard to get where he’s at.”

Earning honorable-mention MRC honors were Wagner and Stauffer, both offensive lineman. Wagner, listed at 6-foot-2 and just 190 pounds, was actually named the team’s offensive lineman of the year at one of the guard spots.

“He worked very hard for the last three or four years in the weight room,” Johnson said. “He’s a slender-built kid, but he has built himself up to be a good, physical player. … He’s just a class act all the way around.”

Stauffer, just a junior, was also listed at just 195 pounds, but also earned MRC recognition and praise from Johnson.

“He’s a quiet kid who doesn’t say a whole lot, but he’s emerging as a leader now,” Johnson said. “He did just an outstanding job on both sides of the ball, and he’s a true team player.”

The Royals’ seven all-conference selections helped Watertown-Mayer win a share of its first conference title since 1985. This year’s senior class brought the program a long way, from helping end a 20-plus game losing streak as sophomores all the way to a conference championship by the time they were seniors.

This year’s team finished the regular season 7-1, with a huge win over third-ranked Tri City United in the final week of the regular season giving the Royals a share of the MRC title. The Royals earned a first-round bye before beating Rockford in the second round of the playoffs. They ultimately were eliminated in the section final by perennial state powerhouse Glencoe-Silver Lake.

“When you try to build a program, you start with a vision of what it should look like,” Johnson said. “The 2013 Royals were that vision –— players working hard as a team to accomplish something greater. It was not about an emphasis on winning and losing, but preparing well each week and sticking together when times got tough. At no point was there ever any negativity toward each other or our football team. I am extremely proud of our player and coaches for the great job this past season.”

In addition to the MRC honors, the Royals also handed out several team awards. Johnson and Hulley were named the co-offensive players of the year, and Andrew Ziegenhagen, who led the team with 91 tackles, was named the defensive player of the year. Bushman and Tyler Nelson, who had two kickoff returns for touchdowns, including a huge one in the win over TCU that clinched a share of the conference title, were named co-special teams players of the year. Sandquist was the defensive lineman of the year and Wagner was the offensive lineman of the year.

Jon Ernst won the Royal Pride Coaches Award and Aaron Sweeney was named the Most Improved Senior. Ryne Alger, Ziegenhagen and Johnson were named captains for the 2014 season.

“We’ll return a solid core of players for 2014,” Coach Johnson said. “Several players will have to improve over the offseason to fill the void left by so many outstanding seniors.”