Football Season Preview: Cougars aim to avoid last season's pitfalls
ZUMBROTA – Zumbrota-Mazeppa’s success hinges on one important question: can the team stay healthy?
“We have five guys who played extensively on one side of the ball or the other,” said Z-M head coach Willie Rauen. “Because of our low numbers, we’re going to have a lot of guys who will be playing both ways, so the biggest thing for us is to be in shape and be in a position to play all four quarters.”
With 33 players out for this year’s team, and with only a small number of players back with varsity experience, the Cougars need to stay on the field and avoid the rash of injuries that plagued them last year.
Trying to curb that problem, Z-M has run longer practices as it gears up for its first game, making sure the starters are ready for the grind of playing both ways.
“We’re working hard and getting used to a new offense and defense,” said running back Jacob Tschann.
Finishing 4-5 last year, including a 4-2 mark in the Hiawatha Valley League Gold division standings, the Cougars open the season at 7 p.m. Thursday against Byron in Zumbrota.
While the injuries were a pain to deal with, Z-M was able to find a quality quarterback in Kurt Gadient. Now a senior, Gadient’s success is vital to any success the Cougars have this season.
“This year, I’m a little more confident,” Gadient said. “I know I can be the leader on offense and tell people where they’re going. It wasn’t that I was scared last year, but now I feel more comfortable and can handle it better than last year.”
Rauen added, “Kurt fell into it right away and he really grew as a quarterback and started to really understand what was going on. He felt really comfortable with it (last year), and he’s started out where he left off last year.”
Around Gadient, the experience on offense is rather limited. Ryan Bennett and Connor Hegseth return on the offensive line, and Jacob Ugeland comes back as the Cougars’ tight end.
In the backfield, Tschann and Collin Carney look to shoulder the load at running back as the team shifts to more of a one- and two-back look.
“It’s some more responsibility,” Tschann said of the one-back look, “and we got some guys who can fill in, so you just have to go as hard as you can for as long as you can.”
Defensively, there is less experience coming back for Z-M with Ugeland, Tschann and Ellis Hirman back in the fold. Tyler Poncelet, who saw some time late last season at middle linebacker, is also in the mix as the Cougars try to piece together its defense.
“None of the other guys we’re putting out there have any varsity experience whatsoever,” Rauen said. “It’s going to be a big learning curve for them. They’ve done fairly well (in practice); they’re starting to learn some of the concepts.”
The big key among the players is adapting to any situation. If Z-M is plagued with injuries like it was last season, the Cougars are ready to move around wherever they’re needed on the field.
“We have less people, so we need to learn every position,” said linebacker Collin Carney. “We all just have to help each other out and have everyone learn the whole defense.”
For Z-M’s benefit, many teams in the Southern Football Alliance White division are in the same predicament.
“The rest of the teams in the White are all pretty close to us as far as how many kids are out,” Rauen said. “I know Pine Island has close to the same number as we do, and the Dover-Eyota coach said they’re low in numbers, too. St. Charles and Lewiston-Altura are about the same. We’re all going to have a lot of teams that play kids both ways.”
“Getting through the scrimmage and our first game with Byron healthy would be huge for us,” Rauen added. “I think we should be competitive with the kids we have as long as we stay healthy.”