Sports editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on the 2009 state championship New London-Spicer football. Today’s story looks at the title season and what led up to it. Tuesday’s story looks at the AAA title game and what some of the players are up to today.
NEW LONDON — New London-Spicer football struggled mightily in the early 2000s.
From 2000 to 2005, the Wildcats had a .228 win percentage and just one winning season.
The varsity team would start to find some momentum in the second half of the decade. And going through the middle-school ranks at the time was a crop of athletes slated to graduate in 2009 and 2010 who knew nothing but success.
It’s what made the 2009 football season special. NLS won its first state championship that helped leave a legacy that continues today.
“Fifth and sixth grade, we were all split through the Willmar leagues. But then as soon as seventh and eighth grade, we maybe lost one game during that time,” said safety/tailback Luke Peterson. “Then the same with ninth-grade and JV.”
Said defensive end Justin Zylstra, “Just like anyone growing up, everyone wants to go to the championship and win the championship when they get to the varsity. That was always a long-term goal for most of us. Our group had a lot of guys who had a lot of determination and were willing to put the time in off the field and in the offseason. And not just for football. People were trying to better themselves all-around.”
NLS had never made the state football tournament prior to 2008, when the Wildcats went 10-3 and broke through by winning Section 6AAA over Albany, 30-0. They got to the Metrodome before losing to DeLaSalle in the Class AAA semifinals.
And there was plenty more work to do in 2009 to get where this group expected to go.
“We had a lot of guys coming back with that (state) experience and had all the confidence in the world,” said tight end Aaron Jenny. “We thought we were the best team going into 2009 and believed by the end of the year we would be state champs at 14-0.”
The 2009 Wildcats would indeed accomplish a perfect season in clinching the school’s lone football championship up to this point. In order to do so, NLS had to dethrone the kings of Class AAA in the 2000s: Glencoe-Silver Lake.
“The team before (2008) started to set the standard,” said Dan Essler, who has coached 30 years at NLS, including the last 20 as head coach. “The combination of 2009 grads and 2010 grads, they really set the tone of excellence for football around here.”
Name a position on the field, NLS had a stud.
“They were just good,” said Kyle Stevens, who called NLS games as the play-by-play announcer for Lakeland Broadcasting in 2009. “They weren’t huge but everybody was just so athletic. … Put them all together on a team and it’s like, hey, we have 12-to-15 athletes who can do whatever we want them to.
“And they did.”
On offense, tailback Jake Essler was the workhorse, accounting for 1,120 yards and 20 total touchdowns (15 rushing, 3 punt return, 1 receiving, 1 kick return) en route to being named the West Central North Conference MVP.
Peterson spelled Jake Essler, rushing for 470 yards and six scores. Sam Schmid and John Nething split time at fullback, combining for 560 yards and four scores.
“Jake was a little more shifty. He’d stop and find the hole, stop and go, stop and go. He’d cut across the grain,” Dan Essler said. “Luke Peterson was a slasher. He’d take the ball and go as fast as you can and just run. They complemented each other because they were so different.”
The offensive line, led by 6-foot-6, 245-pound Aaron Johnson at guard, paved the way for an offense that averaged 302.7 yards and 32.7 points per game.
Sporting a mop of hair and moxie to spare was junior quarterback Jayme Moten. He threw for 1,302 yards, ran for another 312 and had 27 total touchdowns in 2009. And, he always seemed to save the best for the big stage.
“Jayme’s a smart kid, competitive as heck,” said NLS offensive coordinator Chad Gustafson. “He was big in big moments. The bigger the moment, the more he wanted to step up.”
He had plenty of big, athletic targets to throw to in Jenny (33 catches, 567 yards, 7 touchdowns), Erik Tengwall (13-249-5) and future NFL wideout Brandon Zylstra (18-280-5).
“I have the utmost respect for that (senior) class; it helped shape my work ethic,” said Brandon, who was a junior in 2009. “Seeing them get bigger, faster, stronger, I wanted to do that. Whether it was football, basketball or track, they were coming home with first places and I was able to see it on a weekly basis.”
As talented as NLS was moving the ball, the Wildcats were statistically better at stopping it, ranking fourth in Class AAA at 9.7 points allowed per game while giving up 122.3 rushing and 73 passing yards a game.
In the box were two second team All-State selections in middle linebacker Nething (104 solo tackles, 31 for loss, six sacks) and defensive end Justin Zylstra (70 solo tackles, 14.5 sacks).
“We were a very cohesive bunch,” Nething said. “We had the experience from the year before and we were very fast on defense. I played next to Sam Schmid since sixth grade, had my best friend Tom Doscher at D-end and Aaron Johnson on the line; I played with Aaron since sixth grade.”
When teams dared to throw, Tengwall (seven interceptions) and Shawn Hatlestad (five INTs) led a secondary that had 31 interceptions in 2009.
“There was a lot of understanding the matchups and things like that,” said Peterson, who had three interceptions and three sacks at free safety. “We knew we were good enough that if we took a risk on a ball, even if it turned out poorly, it wouldn’t cost us the game because we had the offense and defense to stand next time. It allowed guys to take more risks.”
After a high-scoring win over Paynesville in the season opener, 48-33, NLS was in command throughout the season. Week 2 saw the Wildcats win at home, 14-6, over a Mora team that eventually reached the Class AAA state semifinals.
In Week 4, the rival Albany Huskies came to New London in a battle of the West Central North’s best two teams.
“I remember it always being a big game,” Moten said. “(When) NLS wasn’t very good, I remember them coming in and wrecking us in football games when I was a little kid.
“I remember it being a really big game. If we beat them, we had a great chance of winning it all.”
The visiting Huskies ran for 269 rushing yards. But, the Wildcats’ defense of Albany’s offense was off the board and forced six turnovers in a 14-2 victory. Austin Wenztlaff had two of the team’s four fumble recoveries. Hatlestad and Kevin Soine both had interceptions. Moten threw touchdowns to Jenny (7 yards) and Brandon Zylstra (42 yards).
“You knew when we beat Albany, that’s when you thought we could really make some noise,” Dan Essler said.
NLS cruised the rest of the regular season, outscoring teams 152-20 in a perfect regular season. The first two rounds of the Section 6AAA playoffs were equally dominant against Sauk Centre (42-6) and Annandale (38-6).
The confidence was through the roof. And the Wildcats were breakin’ out the oldies in celebration. Through the locker room stereo, the team had a mix with “Build Me Up Buttercup” by The Foundations along with some hits from Michael Jackson.
“The atmosphere in the locker room was a ton of fun after games,” Jake Essler said. “Week after week, we all kind of bonded from those experiences and that helped all the way through the championship game just knowing we could trust each other.”
Waiting in the section title game was a rematch with Albany at St. Cloud State University’s Husky Stadium.
“You just expect that that’s going to be the section final,” Stevens said. “And whosoever year it is that year, that’s whose year it is. … Those two, three years (2008-10), New London or Albany, whoever came out of that section has some kind of a chance of at least making the Prep Bowl if not winning it.”
The Huskies had a 6-2 lead through one quarter before NLS went up 14-6 at halftime with second-quarter TD runs from Peterson and Moten. Albany cut the gap to two points in the third with a 20-yard B.J. Bueckers TD run.
After Tengwall recovered a fumble, the Wildcats drove the field and scored on a 1-yard Moten run to make it 20-12 with 2:02 to play. Albany capped off a 77-yard drive in the final two minutes with a Zach Noreen TD reception with 16 seconds remaining down 20-18.
The Huskies had to go for two to tie the game, only for an Adam Harlander pass to be picked off by Nething.
The Wildcats were going back to state.
“Albany’s a standout program,” Justin Zylstra said. “If you can compete and beat them twice in a season, then you got a good shot of making it to the final game.”
Like NLS, Albany had a strong crop of seniors that lost just five games between the football and basketball seasons. All five losses were to the Wildcats.
“Every game (with Albany) was competitive,” Jenny said. “Tough year to be a Husky.”
NLS would be back at St. Cloud a week later in the opening round of the Class AAA state tournament against Minneapolis North.
The key to slowing down the Polars was keeping star Carlton Littlejohn in check. Littlejohn ended up starting 59 of 61 games and won four FCS national championships at linebacker with North Dakota State University.
Moten was quick to remember a lasting impact the Polars’ standout left on him.
“I remember (Littlejohn) hit me so hard in that game he gave me a reason why I didn’t want to play football in college,” Moten admitted.
Tied 8-8 through one half, the Wildcats scored 20 unanswered points and advanced with a 28-8 win.
“We really got to show our speed against them once we got on the turf,” Nething said. “We knew we had dangerous speed on defense and offense.”
Peterson ran the ball 25 times against North for 104 yards and three touchdowns. As a team, NLS gained 252 yards on the ground on 51 attempts.
“We ran the ball effectively, four or five yards at a time, and were able to win that one,” Dan Essler said. “We were in control.”
Up next was another trip to the Dome to face Kasson-Mantorville and its high-powered offense. Prior to the state semis, the KoMets were averaging 41.8 points per game.
“They were an air raid team and had a really good quarterback (Bryan Ripley),” Brandon Zylstra said. “With the West Central Conference at the time, there were a lot of running teams and they thought we’d never had a true test in the secondary. It was something we were looking forward to.”
It was a dominant day for the Wildcats as they led 34-0 in the second half, eventually earning the school’s first-ever Prep Bowl berth with a 34-14 victory.
“The Kasson game was big because (the semifinals) was the hurdle we couldn’t get over before,” Peterson said.
All that was left was the three-time defending state champions at Glencoe-Silver Lake.
When NLS struggled earlier in the decade, Jake Essler remembers taking trips to the Metrodome for state and seeing a familiar team.
“There was a group of seven or eight of us that would go down to state growing up,” Jake Essler said. “Glencoe was always down there.”
Justin Zylstra added, “The confidence was high but I think we all were also humbled by the fact that Glencoe had been in this (game) three years in a row and before that had five championships prior. Yeah, we had some success in the two games but we had our biggest, most difficult challenge ahead yet. … There was a lot of energy but you had to keep that focused.”