As Concordia Lutheran High School's football team works on special teams play at Zollner Stadium, I can't help but think: When does the rest of the team show up?
The freshmen are off by themselves and fewer than 30 players are on the field. The Cadets have lost 21 of their last 22 games, not counting a forfeit win two years ago, so maybe it's tough to attract the numbers.
Here's the curve ball, if I can mix my sports metaphors: They're fired up for Bishop Dwenger this Friday night.
Not only are they fired up, but they believe they can win. They were tied with North Side – a pretty powerful team, by the looks – in the second half of a wild 54-33 loss last week.
And while the Cadets lack numbers, they have talent, including quarterback David Morrison (who helped AWP to the 7-on-7 national tournament over the summer), wide receivers Marq Rogers and Brandon Webb and running backs Michael Hicks and Bryndon Williams.
Once they get that first win, that first break, they see no reason why they can't be a factor in the Summit Athletic Conference.
“It just feels like everybody's mentality is different than last year,” Rogers said. “Last year, guys were joking around and weren't serious. I feel this year everybody wants it more and is more serious about being out here on the field.
“That's our mentality this year: Go out with a great mentality that we're going to win this game, no matter what.”
Concordia coach Tim Mannigel was a long-time assistant who took over when veteran coach Dean Doerrfler stepped aside after a successful stretch of Concordia football. Doerffler guided the Cadets to five seasons of .500 or better.
Mannigel took over a young team two years ago, playing a number of freshmen and sophomores on the varsity. They took their lumps, in part because they were physically outmatched. The gap has closed as those players have aged and matured.
The Cadets know Dwenger will be a good measuring stick. Concordia has beaten Dwenger only once (2003) since 1966.
“Facing North Side last week gives us some good experience and an idea of what we might be seeing,” said Morrison, who was 21 of 32 passing for 187 yards and two touchdowns last week.
“A lot of our guys played the last year or two against Dwenger, so they know what Dwenger can bring,” Morrison said. “With all the experience we have, we have a lot of guys hungry for victory and we know what we have to do to get the wins.”
As with most teams that go through a stretch of losses, the Cadets need a break or two to turn momentum their direction. They know they can't rely on the power of numbers, given their roster size. So they have to be well-conditioned, they have to avoid mistakes and they have to find a way to draw on extra adrenalin late in games.
Concordia was leading at halftime of four games they lost last season, Mannigel said.
It's getting to the finish, making the late-game plays that will be the difference. They trailed North Side by two touchdowns in the first half last week, but came back to tie the game before the Redskins pulled away.
“There's something to that – learning how to win,” Mannigel said. “I thought that was just one of those phrases thrown out there, but I truly believe that now. …(Against North Side) we came out and played well in the third quarter. We had a great third quarter. We never did that last year. So they took that next step. Now we have to put the whole thing together.”
Mannigel knows that Dwenger will come into the game with confidence, and it will be important for Concordia to make plays and big hits to show the Saints they're in for a fight.
“No question Dwenger will come here totally expecting to win,” Mannigel said. “We've beaten them what, one time in 30-something years? I don't care if their quarterback is out or what. They're Bishop Dwenger. We're Concordia, they'll think they'll win the game. That's a huge mental hurdle for us.”
This year's team just might have that mental toughness to give the Saints a game, and perhaps be in position to make plays in the fourth quarter to pull off the unexpected.
“We just have to go out there and execute and make all the right plays,” Morrison said. “Go out and work hard. We feel like it's there for the taking. …We have to bring it.”
The Cadets are small in numbers, but big in talent. All they need is a win to jump-start their 2012 dreams.