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Prep football: Essler shines in NLS’ run at state title

New London-Spicer running back Adam Essler drags Mound Westonka’s Reid Dahl as he gains yardage on Aug. 30 in New London. The Wildcats won the game 56-0. Tribune file photo

Many coaches may look at the New London-Spicer football team’s stat sheet and wonder why a tailback with 2,000 rushing yards has been the team’s starter for just one season.

They would have been riding that horse since the kid was able to stand up under his shoulder pads.

But at NLS, even the most exceptional talents wait their turn and it’s no different with Adam Essler, who leads the Wildcats against Rochester Lourdes in the Minnesota Class AAA state semifinals at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at the Metrodome.

In his first season as the Wildcats’ featured back, Essler has run for 2,038 yards – he’s averaging almost 9 yards per carry — and he’s scored 29 touchdowns. He also has 10 pass receptions for 165 yards and 2 TDs, and he’s averaging almost 30 yards on kick returns and almost 13 yards on punt returns.

“I think he could have played more at the running back spot when he was younger,” said Dan Essler, NLS head coach and Adam’s father. “But here at New London-Spicer, you have your role. We try to not start guys both ways, for the most part, and you wait your turn. He probably was talented enough but Austin Stone was our guy last year and he was good enough to get a scholarship at (Minnesota State-Moorhead). We want to get everybody involved in the game.”

Last season, Stone was the Wildcats’ primary ball carrier and he responded with 1,291 yards and 13 touchdowns, helping lead the team to the Class AAA state quarterfinals. Stone was a first-team Tribune All-Area pick.

But the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Essler produced so well in a limited offensive role that he was named to the Tribune’s All-Area second team, running for 409 yards, catching passes for 108 and totaling 12 touchdowns. On defense, he made 35 solo tackles and 2 interceptions at cornerback.

 This year, he knew the coveted tailback spot was his, but he and his veteran teammates worked in the offseason like they were fighting for their jobs.

Players from the Wildcats’ 2009 state championship team worked out with the current players. They put in extra time in the weight room and classroom, with the goal of earning that trip to the dome that eluded them last year.

“I set personal goals,” Essler said, “but obviously the team comes first, no doubt about that. I’m a confident player, I guess you could say. All the things I’ve done individually, I kind of thought I could do it. But you don’t focus on that. We’re just going to go to the dome and see what happens.”

Dad, Adam and his older brother Jake, a member of the 2009 team and now a senior back and kick returner at St. John’s, made football almost a daily routine.

“It was always football in the backyard,” Essler said. “We’d play during commercials during Vikings games. It’s just where football grew on me.”

The Essler boys also played a ton of sports with friends and cousins, several of whom went on to play sports in college.

“He’s always been into football,” Dan Essler said. “Guys would be over here all the time —Ryan (Vraa), Ben (Beuning), Chris Nelson. They’d watch college games, they’d watch pro games and they’d play in the yard. He does have a great football sense. He’s got great speed and athletic ability but I think that helps him, too.”

And they bought into the NLS tradition. The 2009 team’s state championship run left an impression on the current players, who were just coming of age as football players as they sat in the Metrodome stands that year and witnessed it.

“We wanted that same thing,” Essler said. “It made me work harder in my sports. We were eighth-graders, watching the championship game and watching how happy they were to accomplish their goal. Everyone wants that same feeling of accomplishment: Why can’t we?”

A year ago, the Wildcats lost a 20-17 heart-breaker to Annandale in the state quarterfinals. The Cardinals then led state runner-up Lourdes in the semifinals before losing by four points.

Dan Essler quietly predicted that the talent and work ethic of his 2013 team could take them far, but the NLS players and coaches knew Annandale would be their main section rival again.

The Wildcats edged the Cardinals 42-38 in a Wright County Conference game during the season, and they engaged in a wild, track meet-type rematch in the Section 6AAA final, with NLS winning 66-46 to return to the state tournament for a second straight year.

“We knew we had a shot at the dome if we could just get by Annandale,” Essler said. “We lost to them my sophomore year (21-20 in the section opener) and we lost to them last year. This year, we just wanted to get over that hump.”

It took a flat performance in a 17-point loss to St. Peter at home in their final regular season game to remind the Wildcats that it takes all-out effort just to get to that hump.

“Before that game, I think we were a little overconfident,” Essler said. “We’d just beat Holy Family 50-7 and I think we weren’t ready. I think, overall, that (St. Peter) game was a blessing for us. It kept us even keel and made us realize that if we screwed up just once we were done for the season. We’ve really kept focused throughout the playoffs.”

Essler found his stride especially in the last six games, during which he’s surpassed 200 yards four times, 300 yards once and his low rushing total was 175 in the St. Peter game. In that stretch, he’s run for 1,420 yards and 22 TDs.

“I think it took him awhile to learn how to be a running back again,” Dan Essler said. “But he’s really shown in the last five or six games that he’s capable of getting a lot of yards.”

The dome’s atmosphere will be exciting but there’s the added benefit of getting to play in dry conditions on turf. The last two weeks, playing on turf at St. Cloud State’s Husky Stadium, Essler has rushed for 587 yards and 8 touchdowns. The Wildcats have rushed for an average of 427 yards in those two games and they averaged 514 total yards while scoring 122 points.

“A lot of the season we played in the muck and mud,” Dan Essler said. “So now you go from hoping you have good footing when you make a cut to having perfect footing on cuts and on that turf you just feel so much faster. It makes a big difference.”

College recruiters won’t need to see Essler on turf to realize what he can do. He’s got firm offers from two schools and at least six colleges have him on their radar. And when the Wildcats’ season does end, Essler will hand the baton to the next potentially great tailback.

“Look at Trey Austvold this year,” Dan Essler said of the junior back who has run for 309 yards and 3 touchdowns averaging 7.5 yards per carry. “He’d probably be a 1,200-yard rusher or more for somebody else. But he’s not going to get his shot until he’s a senior, just like Adam.”

That’s just how it runs at NLS.

Tom Larson

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

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