It had been awhile since the Fond du Lac football team experienced the kind of success it had in 2014.
Eight years to be exact.
Last year, the Cardinals went 10-2, finished second in the Valley Football Association South and advanced to Level 3 of the WIAA Division 1 playoffs — falling to eventual state champ Kimberly, 41-15.
Before 2014, the last time Fond du Lac made it as far as the D1 state quarterfinals was way back in 2006, when the Cardinals went 8-4, finished second in the Fox Valley Association and lost to eventual state runner-up Hartland Arrowhead 36-21 in that Level 3 game.
It’s a pretty safe bet that coach Mike Gnewuch and the Cardinals have no desire for another eight-year drought. Fortunately, despite a bunch of key departures from the 2014 squad, Fond du Lac appears to be in pretty good position for similar success in 2015.
The Cardinals return 2014 Action Reporter Media All-Area Offensive Football Player of the Year Justin Maratik as well as a number of other important pieces on offense and defense, helping to offset some of the losses. But more than anything, Gnewuch thinks his team’s success will come down to individual attitude and work ethic.
“I just think that if they come out with the attitude where we’re going to have fun every single day and fun comes by doing our absolute best and putting maximum effort into every single repetition and trying to improve daily, I think the wins take care of themselves,” Gnewuch said. “The score speaks for itself at that point. Our whole theme this year is ‘Win your individual battle.’ That’s what we’re really focusing on, whether you’re a wide receiver, whether you’re a defensive lineman is winning your individual battle. If every guy focuses on that, we’ll play some pretty good team football.”
The Maratik show
Arguably the most important returning player offensively for Fond du Lac is running back Justin Maratik, who last year ran for 1,918 yards and 21 touchdowns on 310 attempts and was a first team all-VFA South selection.
Maratik seemingly got the ball every other play, recording multiple games with more than 30 carries, as he was the workhorse for an offense that averaged 34.2 points per game. That workload may increase in 2015 as he’ll not only be the primary option out of the backfield, but could also see more action in the passing game as well as on defense.
“I think just his experience within our system and his knowledge of our offensive scheme allows us to do some things with him where we can kind of feature him a little bit and put him in different positions where we may try to get him the ball in unconventional ways that he hasn’t done in the past,” Gnewuch said of Maratik. “I think that’s a huge positive aspect offensively. Defensively, he’s a pretty good athlete. We’d like to see if we can get him a few more snaps on that side of the ball this year.”
Life without Jack
Probably the biggest individual loss on the offensive side of the ball for Fond du Lac comes at the quarterback position, where the Cards will need to adjust without first team all-VFA South signal-caller Jack Nejedlo.
In his senior season, Nejedlo was 93-of-176 passing for 1,520 yards and 19 touchdowns and also ran for 652 yards. That kind of production, and the leadership Nejedlo also brought to the mix, isn’t easily replaced.
But luckily, Gnewuch has already dealt with this exact situation. During the 2013 season, Nejedlo injured his knee early in the year and was lost for the rest of the fall. Sophomore Quinn Woelfel stepped in and performed admirably, even leading the Cardinals to a first-round playoff upset over Menomonee Falls.
Now in his senior season, it will be Woelfel again, but this time it won’t be a trial by fire.
“People may forget that he started basically his whole sophomore season and won a playoff game when we were underdogs against Menomonee Falls,” Gnewuch said of Woelfel. “He’s got a lot of snaps under his belt at the quarterback position and he’s got great moxie. He’s really got a handle on what we do offensively so he may not have been under the center last year within our system, but he was still playing receiver and still got plenty of snaps on the offensive side of the football.”
A new line
While maybe the most prominent, Nejedlo is far from the only offensive departure for the Cardinals.
Along with VFA South Receiver of the Year Brian Luteyn (47 receptions, 921 yards, 10 TDs), Fond du Lac also loses its entire offensive line, including VFA South Offensive Lineman of the Year Peter Andrew and Aaron Wehner, a first team all-conference selection.
Maratik may have been a stud in the backfield a season ago, but he got a ton of help from the big boys in front of him. He, along with Woelfel, will need to hope that the new line is able to gel quickly and provide a similar amount of push and protection as last year’s did.
For now, Gnewuch is just hoping the junior varsity players who step in are up to the challenge.
“We lose five starters on the o-line between Peter and Aaron and Jace Laning, Charlie Immel and Wyatt Holzman,” he said. “So all five of those guys are gone, but our JVs were 9-0 last year and we were able to establish the run pretty effectively. So those JV guys will be ready, it’s just that they’re kind of untested when it comes to varsity reps.”
A change on defense
Although the offense will feature a bunch of new faces, it will still operate essentially the same. The same won’t be said for the defense.
Last year, the Cardinals played primarily out of a 3-4 base defense because of a strength at the linebacker position. In 2015, Gnewuch anticipates a switch to the 4-3 because of the graduation of players like Jason Toshner, Lucas Raube and Jacob Stadler — who anchored the linebacker corps.
Fond du Lac does lose VFA South Co-Defensive Player of the Year Robert Windsor (56 tackles, 5 sacks) along the defensive line, but Gnewuch believes his squad will be a little stronger up front, prompting the transition to a 4-3. In the defensive backfield, first team all-conference safety Jake Walgenbach is back, as is cornerback Ryan Collien.
In allowing just 15.3 points per contest a season ago, it was Fond du Lac’s defense that was the difference in a number of tight games. That defense’s development just may hold the key to the Cardinals’ overall success in 2015.
“I think our secondary’s pretty athletic,” Gnewuch said. “I think they’ll really be able to help us out with the pass game just because not only are they experienced, but they have great group athleticism between them. We don’t have a ton of depth in our front seven, but they’re good football players. They fly to the football, they’re smart, they’re coachable. If players keep developing the way they did over our contact days, I think we’ll be just fine.”
Aiming for the top
As successful as Fond du Lac’s 2014 campaign was, the Cardinals did come up short of the VFA South title, losing out to Oshkosh North.
While maybe not a driving factor this season, Gnewuch acknowledged that winning a conference championship would be a great accomplishment for the team in 2015. But with the season only just beginning, that’s not even on his mind yet.
“I think that would be nice to be able to put something with the boys’ accomplishments,” he said. “But to be honest, we’re just taking it one step at a time and we’re just focused on Week 1 right now and trying to put together the best possible game that we can play on Aug. 21.”
Sam Oleson: (920) 907-7930, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @sam_olesonFDL
Fond du Lac Cardinals
•Head Coach: Mike Gnewuch, fourth season (18-13 overall record)
•Last year’s record: 10-2 overall, 6-1 in Valley Football Association South (2nd place), lost to Kimberly 41-15 in Level 3 WIAA Division 1 playoffs
•Returning all-conference players: Justin Maratik, rb, first team; Jake Walgenbach, db, first team; Tyler Miller, dl, second team; Mark Dilling, fb, honorable mention; Tanner Koenigs, dl, honorable mention; Ryan Collien, db, honorable mention.
•2015 Schedule: Aug. 21: at Appleton East, 7 p.m.; Aug. 28: vs. Kaukauna, 7 p.m.; Sept. 4: vs. Stevens Point, 7 p.m.; Sept. 11: at Neenah, 7 p.m.; Sept. 18: at Oshkosh North, 7 p.m.; Sept. 25: vs. Oshkosh West, 7 p.m.; Oct. 2: at Hortonville, 7 p.m.; Oct. 9: vs. Wisconsin Rapids, 7 p.m.; Oct. 16: at Marshfield, 7 p.m.