PELLA, Iowa — It has been hard to avoid the words “winning streak” around here these days.
The last time the Pella football team lost a game was Nov. 8, 2013 — or, 1,375 days ago. It was a 28-0 loss at the hands of Washington, the eventual Class 3A state finalist that season. At the time, that defeat ruined the Dutch’s perfect season.
They haven’t been defeated since.
Pella enters 2017 on a 41-game winning streak, the sixth-longest active winning streak in the country. That’s three consecutive unbeaten seasons, which all ended with 3A state titles. The Dutch became just the third program to win three straight 3A titles, joining Decorah and Harlan (twice).
“Just very grateful that we’ve gotten to do what we’ve gotten to do the last several years,” Pella coach Jay McKinstrey said. “You have to sit back sometimes and just say, wow, this has been very neat to have been a part of.
“The kids — I know it’s in their mind, but it’s got to be irrelevant.”
It’s a similar mindset McKinstrey preached to his team each of the last two seasons, but he admits it will be extremely important to do so this fall. Pella’s depth chart, both offensively and defensively, will feature many new faces this year.
Only one starter from 2016’s best passing offense returns — and he’s a running back. Senior Avery Van Zee rushed for 443 yards and nine touchdowns last season and also caught nine passes for 121 yards and another score.
“This is a team game, not an individual game,” Van Zee said. “I feel like all the guys we have this year are willing to work toward one goal, and I think we can accomplish a lot if we play selfless football.”
At quarterback, McKinstrey will look to junior Ryan Gustafson. After three years with Noah Clayberg and Nick Finney leading the show both by rushing and passing, Gustafson will offer a study in precision passing. Van Zee raved about his accuracy.
McKinstrey remained a bit more cautious.
“He’s a good athlete,” McKinstrey said. “He can run well. He throws the ball decently. But he’s just very inexperienced. Nick was very inexperienced at quarterback last year, but Nick was a starting defensive back as a junior, so he played at that varsity level. Ryan really doesn’t have that.”
The defensive situation resembles that of the offense, as just three starters return from last season. The good news here is that both Lucas Warner and Cade Van Vliet are back after being the team’s top two tacklers in 2016 — they combined for 122 tackles, including 16 for a loss and 4.5 sacks.
“We have a lot of players that are stepping up,” Warner said. “Some good players from last year that didn’t see the field much and they’re excited to fill in some of the spots we have open.”
What do they think of the winning streak?
“We’ve just been telling them not to focus on it,” Warner said. “Just get the play down and make sure you know what you’re doing first, then look ahead after that. We just keep telling them one week at a time.”
It’s a hard subject to avoid, no doubt, but McKinstrey has found ways to shelve that discussion since the Dutch first won state in 2014. Even dating back to that 2013 season, he’s led the Dutch to 52 wins in their last 53 games; a remarkable run of success he hopes to continue this season.
It will be hard, of course, after losing 18 combined starters from last season, but McKinstrey has faith in his team.