After two seasons of failing to make the playoffs, the Oshkosh North Spartans football team was able to make it back last year for the first time since 2009, going 4-5 and falling to Green Bay Southwest in the first round of the WIAA Division 1 playoffs.
This season is about getting there again and making it two in a row.
“We’ve got some big expectations for ourselves this year,” senior lineman Max Mueller said. “We want to try and live up to them.”
The Spartans know what it takes now to make it and having plenty of returners back will help them realize their goal once again.
It’s now just a matter of strapping it up and getting it done.
“I see it as we have to prove people wrong,” senior lineman Caleb Davila said. “Last year, no one wanted to pick us at all and now we are picked No. 1 (in conference). That’s my motivation to get through it.”
One thing that nearly derailed the Spartans’ playoff chances last season was a slow start out of the gates.
Oshkosh North started just 1-3 in conference — falling to playoff teams Menasha, Stevens Point and Marshfield along the way.
It took three straight wins at the end of the season to make it. The Spartans don’t want to make it that hard on themselves again.
“It’s important that we get off to a fast start,” senior lineman Zach Zangl said. “To keep our energy high and get motivation to keep going.
“Got to take it one game at a time though.”
The goal for the Spartans this season seems easy. Get to four conference wins as fast as they can. Easier said then done, though.
“The quicker you can get four, as far as conference goes, then the better chance you have of being in the conference title chase,” Oshkosh North coach Chris Kujawa said. “It’s a race to four.”
It will help the Spartans playoff chances that they don’t have to go through a killer first stretch like they did last year.
That stretch included a non-conference loss to Appleton North, road losses to Marshfield and Menasha and a loss to Stevens Point — all within the first five weeks.
This year’s is tough, but not quite as drastic as that, as they take on Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point on the road, but get Menasha and Fond du Lac at home in between to start conference play.
If the Spartans want to make it easier on themselves, they’ll be sure to pick up their wins early and often.
“With the buzzsaw schedule we had last year to start things off, I was really proud of how well these kids came out and played,” Kujawa said. “Hopefully this year we’ve learned from that and we can pick up some quick ones.”
One thing the Spartans won’t be lacking is experience.
Oshkosh North returns plenty of starters back from last year’s squad. That means they know what it takes and what needs to be done to win games again this year.
“We came out here right away, we knew what was going on,” Zangl said. “We knew the playbook becasue we’ve been through it before.
“With our experience, if we keep rolling, we are going to be fine.”
It’s also helped in getting Oshkosh North up to speed during the first week of practice. Their timing and execution was crisp and they got up to speed on plays and systems quickly.
“Everybody already has some chemistry (from last year),” Mueller said.
“We just know how to work with each other and everything flows nicely.”
There were also fewer times where coaches had to stop players in practice to teach or to tell the players to pick it up.
That was already done by a senior crew eager to get back to the playoffs.
Into the depths
Piggybacking on the experience of the Spartans is the boatload of depth they have at multiple positions on both sides of the ball.
On offense, Oshkosh North returns basically their whole offensive line, with seniors Mueller, Davila and Zangl and juniors Brett Sawicki and Caleb Alsteen. Davila, Zangl, Sawicki and Alsteen all received mention on the VFA-South all-conference teams.
The backfield also brings back senior quarterback Nate Neveau, who has had the reigns for the past two years for the Spartans and who was an all-VFA South first-teamer last year. Alex Hintze, Cooper Radtke and plenty more surround Neveau with running and passing options.
On defense, North will be led by returning middle linebacker Robert Phillips, a second-team all-VFA South performer, and Radtke at safety, who was a first-team selection.
Surrounding them will be plenty of other upperclassmen, who, if they didn’t start last season, got a healthy amount of playing time.
It’s pretty nice for a coach to have that kind of depth around the roster.
“It’s fun as a coach, and our staff is really, really excited, when you take a look at the depth chart and not only do the starters have experience and know what they are doing but our backups are good athletes as well,” Kujawa said. “It’s nice to have that. It gives you a peace of mind.”
The playoffs are the obvious goal for the Spartans who have plenty of returning talent to make it back.
But can there be something more for Oshkosh North?
The players certainly think so.
“I feel like we can expect a conference championship,” Davila said. “Nothing short of that.”
“Our expectations are limitless,” Zangl added. “We can accomplish whatever we want, as long as we work hard for it.
“If we put in the hard work, anything is possible.”
Kujawa was more subdued on the subject of how far this team can go. But he knows that if the Spartans get the most out of their ability, it could be a pretty special season on the North side.
“We have high expectations, but you have to take care of number one before I can elaborate on any more expectations,” Kujawa said. “We have to get four before we can worry about a conference championship. We have to get to four before we can worry about a playoff run.”