Like most coaches, Mark Lusic doesn’t like compare teams.
That’s not to say the Amherst football coach doesn’t see one glaring difference between this year’s team and the one that reached Level 3 of the WIAA playoffs a year ago.
“I think we knew we were good enough to get here and return to Level 3,” Lusic said of his unbeaten team as it prepares for a showdown today with perennial state powerhouse Stratford. “Last year, I think we were just happy to get this far.
“There was a different feeling going into this year. I interview all the kids after the season, and they were all like, ‘Let’s go back to Level 3.’ No longer was just making it to Level 3 good enough.”
And the Falcons are back with a vengeance.
Amherst steamrolled its way through the regular season, while capturing the outright Central Wisconsin Conference-8 title after sharing it last season.
And it’s not like one side of the football has carried the other throughout this season.
Amherst has been dominant on offense and defense, along with special teams, outscoring its 10 opponents 437-80 to date. Many of the points the Falcons have surrendered — 51 in the fourth quarter — came with the game already well in hand.
“Our speech all season has been about getting better every day. That’s all you can ask as a coach, and I think we’re better this week than we were last week,” Lusic said. “You don’t want to have your best game in the first game. There are a number of guys who we had back that we knew could play, but are much better today than they were when the season began.”
Meanwhile, when the ball is in their hands, the Falcons have shown remarkable balance.
Senior quarterback Chris Zblewski has completed 71 percent of his passes for 1,538 yards with 24 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
That sort of production complements a ground game that has churned out 2,408 yards and 38 touchdowns behind the 1-2 punch of Zblewski (1,079 yards, 16 TDs) and younger brother Connor (624, 14 TDs).
The third-year coach also had high expectations for his defense entering the 2012 season, and the unit hasn’t disappointed.
“In my head, I thought our defense could be lights out, and our defense has been every bit as good as I thought it could be,” Lusic said. “Like any coach will say, you have to be able to stop people.”
Stopping the 10 victims the Falcons have left in their path this season is one thing. Shutting down what Lusic described as a “very big, very athletic” Stratford team could be another.
The Tigers, who won six straight WIAA state championships from 2003-08, will present the biggest challenge of the season for Amherst.
“There is no doubt they are the most athletic team we’ve played all year. For us, the biggest comparison would be Shiocton,” Lusic said. “We’ve been telling our guys that this team isn’t the Stratford team that was winning all those state championships. We belong here, and whatever happens, happens.”