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College football: Essler, Bungum are team leaders as SJU heads into new era

Photos by Kimm Anderson / St. Cloud Times Former Paynesville back Josh Bungum (No. 1, pictured) and former New London-Spicer all-purpose back Jake Essler are two of St. John’s University’s top offensive weapons this year. The two former area prep stars also are helping lead the team into a new era under head coach Gary Fasching, who replaced legendary head coach John Gagliardi. Gagliardi retired following the 2012 season after 64 years in college coaching.

Like many high school football stars, New London-Spicer’s Jake Essler and Paynesville’s Josh Bungum had a nice buffet of options set out before them as they contemplated their post-prep playing days.

They were aware that almost any small-college team in the region would have gladly welcomed them aboard, and that those schools’ coaches undoubtedly would have begun plotting wistfully the ways in which they would deploy their athleticism, speed and versatility to make Saturday afternoons hell for everyone else.

But then St. John’s got the two central Minnesota boys onto its beautiful Collegeville campus for a couple of days, and into the office of legendary head coach John Gagliardi for a few minutes. The Johnnies’ claws were sunk in deep and those other programs were out of luck.

Essler, the Wildcats’ speedster, and Bungum, the Bulldogs’ do-everything threat, are now St. John’s chief offensive weapons as the 2-0 Johnnies head into Saturday’s game – and into the maw of one of college football’s richest rivalries – playing for the Holy Grail Trophy against St. Thomas at O’Shaughnessy Stadium in St. Paul.

And while Saturday’s 83rd chapter of Johnnies vs. Tommies is at the forefront in Essler’s and Bungum’s minds this week, they will one day in the future come to grips with the remarkable fact that, of the thousands of players who have passed through St. John’s storied football program since 1953, they will be among the very few who will be able to say they played for two head coaches.

“There’s nothing like Johnnies-Tommies week,” said Bungum, a sophomore and SJU’s top wide receiver. “Everybody on both campuses gets excited. It’s such a big rivalry.”

“The last three years, we haven’t won (against St. Thomas) and we know that,” said Essler, the Johnnies’ senior starter at tailback. “My class hasn’t beaten them, so we’re excited and we’re pretty confident going in at 2-0.”

Essler is the Johnnies’ leading rusher this season, with 131 yards and 2 touchdowns on 28 carries. He’s also the team’s top return man, averaging 6.5 yards on 4 punt returns and 17.4 yards on 5 kick returns.

Last year, his first as a full-time player, Essler averaged 13.4 yards on punt returns and 19.5 yards on kick returns. Overall, he scored 5 TDs.

As a freshman in 2012, Bungum led the Johnnies with 575 receiving yards on 42 catches and he scored 4 touchdowns. This year, he leads the team with 15 catches for 221 yards and a TD and he was named the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s Offensive Player of the Week last week.

Essler, a 2010 NLS graduate, and Bungum, a 2012 Paynesville grad, arrived at SJU at an interesting time in the football program’s illustrious history, as the team began losing three, four, five games a season and not qualifying for the postseason.

Many teams would pay to experience SJU’s down seasons, but in Collegeville the competitive lull was cause for concern. Yet it didn’t deter Essler and Bungum.

As a high school senior, Essler was a vital cog in New London-Spicer’s 2009 Class AAA championship season. He accounted for more than 1,100 rushing yards, averaged 15 yards on punt returns and 25 yards on kick returns, and he scored 18 overall touchdowns. On defense, he made more than 60 tackles and intercepted four passes. He did it all despite missing two games with a concussion. He was so well-rounded that his father, Dan, NLS’ head coach, used him as the team’s long snapper.

Bungum was an offensive marvel his senior season for the Bulldogs in 2011. He rushed for 2,539 yards and 30 touchdowns, and once ensconced as the team’s regular quarterback by midseason, he threw for almost 1,300 yards and 13 TDs. He also caught two touchdown passes and returned a kick for another score as Paynesville advanced to the Class AA state quarterfinals.

Both Essler and Bungum measure up at 5-foot-9, between 170 and 180 pounds. Perfect for the purposes of Gagliardi, who long before most understood that speed kills, especially at the NCAA Division III level. Adapting had long been Gagliardi’s trump card.

Gagliardi won 489 games, the most in college football history, and four national championships. He made his bones when the game was a bruising thug-fest with impenetrable defense. When the game evolved into an offensive firefight, he was ahead of the curve again, especially in the last 20 years. He devised ways to make modestly sized backs and receivers like Blake Elliott, Chris Palmer, Adam Herbst and Jeremy Loretz into All-Americans and game-changers.

His first championship team, in 1963, allowed just a touchdown per game. His second title team, in 1965, was 11-0 and allowed just 27 total points, an average of 2.5 points per game. In 1993, the Johnnies scored a then-NCAA record 702 points — a 54-points-per-game average — and in his final national championship season in 2003, led by Melrose-native Elliott, SJU scored 38 points per game while giving up just 11 per game.

Essler had his college choices down to St. John’s and St. Thomas before he made his visit to Collegeville. SJU’s current head coach, Gary Fasching, a 17-year Gagliardi assistant and got on Essler’s radar.

“Gary called me one day and got me up on a visit,” Essler said. “I met with John and the other coaches, and I just loved the campus, too. Great people. John’s one of the main reasons I went here. He’s one of the greatest football coaches ever. He had the most wins in history so I was intrigued.”

Fasching got Essler on campus and got him into Gagliardi’s office, where “The Legend,” closed the deal.

“He’s funny, and he’s very nice, also,” Essler said with a laugh. “He can talk forever.”

Fasching also recruited Bungum, who was looking into several programs, including SJU rival Gustavus. The Bungum family got to know Fasching and Josh fell in love with the campus, the atmosphere and football tradition.

“I met John and here’s the all-time winningest coach and I was kind of in awe of him,” Bungum said. “Then he cracks a couple of jokes and you realize he’s just a normal guy who’s really good at coaching football. It was a pretty awesome experience the first time I met him.”

When Gagliardi announced after the 2012 season that he was retiring, Essler and Bungum had mixed feelings.

“He’s 86 years old so you had to see it coming at some point,” said Bungum, who stopped in Gagliardi’s office after his retirement. “It was shocking but not surprising. Winning is what he does so when you aren’t winning it’s kind of hard on him. It was a sad day here at St. John’s but it’s nice that I’ve gotten to know him as a person after hearing about him for so long.”

Essler stopped by Gagliardi’s office a couple of days after the announcement, when the hubbub had subsided.

“I just thanked him for getting me on campus,” said Essler, who would like to pursue college football coaching after graduation. “This has been a great experience and I love the place.”

On game days and in practice, the SJU tradition is still the same, with just a little tweaking.

Former SJU star quarterback Kurt Ramler was installed as offensive coordinator and brought some new ideas, Essler said.

Practices now are a little quicker paced and there’s more individual work with position groups, Bungum said.

“Jake and I have had to learn a few new things, but overall the culture is the same,” Bungum said. “The basic concepts are the same.”

A big test for the new-age Johnnies comes Saturday. The Johnnies lead the rivalry 49-31-1 but the Tommies have owned SJU of late. After squeaking out a one-point win in 2010, the Tommies handled the Johnnies, 63-7 in 2011 and 43-21 last year.

“We’re looking forward to Saturday,” Bungum said. “We have to execute our plays and not make some of the mistakes we’ve made the last couple of weeks. We have a talented team and if we can put some things together, I think we can give them a run.”

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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