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NLS one step from claiming first title

MINNEAPOLIS -- The New London-Spicer football program has come a long way.

Only one step remains in the Wildcats' evolution from a really good team to a program people talk about for years to come.

A state championship.

"We have to believe we can win because we feel we're the better team," NLS coach Dan Essler said. "Who would have ever guessed six or seven years ago that we could actually make that statement and believe it?"

The Wildcats will have their chance at noon today at the Metrodome. All that stands in the way is three-time defending champion Glencoe-Silver Lake.

But getting the program to the cusp of a championship trophy has taken a lot of work.

New London-Spicer had only one winning season in the first six years of Essler's tenure, which started in 2000. The Wildcats were winless in 2002 and didn't qualify for postseason action twice.

"When I first took over from Lou Pirrotta, NLS got moved from the West Central South to the West Central North. They decided as a conference to take the biggest eight schools and put them in the North," Essler said. "It wasn't good timing for us. The bigger schools had exceptional teams in Albany, Melrose and Litchfield. We could not compete week in, week out. We had some good teams but we were getting destroyed by great teams. As coaches we would go to the playoff games and say 'how in heck do they expect us to play against those type of teams?'

"We worked a lot on football skills and then the Wildcat Booster Club came up with funds to staff the weight room in the summer. That is when things really turned around for all our sports. In football's 'down years', baseball, wrestling and most other sports didn't win many games either. The weight room has made all the difference in our athletic program over the last five years."

The Wildcats posted a 15-37 record in Essler's first six seasons. Since then, they are 37-10 with two Section 6AAA titles and a section runner-up finish.

When asked if this year's team is the best in school history, Essler hedged a bit.

"I would say that this is the most 'successful' team we have had," he noted. "Last year's team was probably just as good overall. We are just different, in terms that we are better defensively this year due to experience. But, last year's offense was better overall. Special teams are even. I don't feel we would have gone this far into the playoffs this year without last year's team breaking some barriers for this group."

He ranks the team's defense as it's biggest strength, followed by overall team speed and strength, offensive skill positions, the offensive line's improvements and, finally, depth.

"If we have had an illness or injury we are deep enough to play another very good player from the other side of the ball," Essler said. "We only have two or three 2-way starters, but, they all are backups on the opposite side of the ball."

To be successful against Glencoe-Silver Lake, the Wildcats will have to bring the total package, not just parts of it. In the quarterfinals, NLS ran the ball all over Minneapolis North in the second half. Last week in the semifinals, the Wildcats brought out their passing attack.

Essler said it's a credit to his coaching staff that NLS has been as well-prepared in the playoffs.

"Offensive coordinator Chad Gustafson thought we could run the ball on Minneapolis North and we did very well," he said. "However, against Kasson-Mantorville and the size of their defensive line and flow of their linebackers, he figured we needed to throw more to be effective. He, Jeff Boonstra and Rick McLain do a great job in preparing the offense each week."

The Wildcats will also have to avoid committing so many penalties, like they did against Kasson-Mantorville. Essler said the goal is to take care of the ball and move down the field effectively.

"It should be a field position game. Last week we were able to go for it on many fourth down situations because we felt we could stop Kasson-Mantorville consistently," he said. "We'll punt the ball this week and play field position against GSL."