Small schools work to build football programsWrenshall’s Jeremy Zywicki isn’t your typical football coach. He’s patient.
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
Wrenshall’s Jeremy Zywicki isn’t your typical football coach.
Two and a half years since the school had to suspend its football program, the Wrens are looking to improve on last season’s 1-8 record with a full schedule in the Great Northern Conference’s South Division.
And in today’s win-now world, Zywicki takes on the approach of a man who is building a new house one brick at a time.
“We didn’t have a senior on the team (last season),” Zywicki said. “And last year was our first year back as a varsity program, so we are trying to rebuild. That takes time.”
The Wrens beat Northland 49-8 in last season’s third game for their first varsity win in more than three years, and lost 53-8 to McGregor in the section playoffs.
“We were extremely young last year,” Zywicki said. “We didn’t have anyone on the team with prior varsity experience, so it was a learning process for the guys. They had played two seasons of junior varsity football and made the transition to varsity.
“It’s a whole different level from junior high to JV to varsity. It’s faster and so much more physical. Last year we definitely took our lumps but they [the players] learned from it. We took the experience and everything game by game. We learned as a team.”
This season the team will have a new quarterback, with sophomore Luke Vine moving from tight end to under center.
“Luke’s an athletic kid who started for us last year as a freshman at tight end and defensive end,” Zywicki said. “He’s a taller kid, so we’re hoping he can develop into a nice quarterback for us who can throw the ball when we need it.”
Now, though, the Wrens are hoping to move up the ladder.
“We do have that year of varsity experience and we have some seniors,” Zywicki said. “We also have juniors who played last year.”
Twenty-two players in grades 9-12 are out for the team, including six seniors.
“We’re hoping for a few more wins this year,” Zywicki said. “It’s a process when you are rebuilding a program.”
However, one of those seniors, wingback Derek Duncan, is sidelined after contracting Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare condition which attacks the peripheral nervous system.
“Derek went from being a healthy 17-year-old kid who plays football and basketball to laying in a hospital bed unable to get out of it on his own and moving with a walker,” Zywicki said. “He’s making great progress but we miss him a lot.”
Approximately 80 percent of Guillain-Barré patients have a full recovery within a few months to a year. Others who have had GBS include President Franklin D. Roosevelt, NFL Hall of Famer Hugh McElhenny, former Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel and famed lineman William “Refrigerator” Perry.
The rest of the Wrens are getting ready for Friday night’s opening game against Nevis.
“We scrimmaged against [defending section champion] Silver Bay and I thought we did well against them,” Zywicki said. “We are hoping to improve this fall.”
Zywicki also had some advice for Wrenshall’s neighbors to the north, Carlton. This year, the Bulldogs are in junior varsity status after suspending their program last fall.
According to the Minnesota State High School League, the Bulldogs have two games scheduled this fall with a roster including six seniors, no juniors, eight sophomores and the balance made up of middle-school players.
“It’s a process to rebuild a program,” Zywicki said. “It goes from uniforms and jerseys to getting guys to come out for the team to getting into the swing of playing on Friday nights. You have to promote your program. You have to get kids fired up and excited to play football.”
And how do you generate that excitement? Through success.
“We had two years of JV,” Zywicki said. “The first year was the remainder of the season where we cancelled the varsity program. We told the kids to stick with it and we would play teams of our own age group. The second year we went 5-1 and we gained a bit in numbers.”
“We finished last season with 19 kids and this year we have 22,” Zywicki added. “It’s a process. It’s not hopeless. We don’t want to throw our kids into the fire too soon and get them beat up and discouraged. Carlton will learn that too. It’s not good to have a team of freshmen and sophomores going up against established programs like Cromwell-Wright or Isle or Onamia or McGregor.
“You have to be patient.”