Early last season, the Gustavus Adolphus football team suffered three straight losses, including a humbling 31-0 loss to Bethel, prompting coach Peter Haugen to use a bye week to get his squad refocused on its goals.
Whatever he told the players, it seemed to work, and Gustavus won five of its last six games to move up to fourth place in the MIAC. That momentum seems to have carried the Gusties through the offseason.
“We needed to reset after Week 4 and find our resolve, as players and coaches,” Haugen said. “We knew we needed to perform better, and those six weeks were pretty special.
“It was really important to be playing at a high level at the end of the season. That helps everyone prepare for a strong offseason and keep that momentum.”
Gustavus opens the season Saturday with a nonconference home game against Martin Luther. Last season, the Gusties struggled to defeat Martin Luther, which won its next nine games and advanced to the NCAA Division III playoffs.
“The way we finished really boosted our confidence,” senior tight end Brayton Finch said. “Losing to St. Thomas (14-13) stung a little bit, but hopefully we can pick up where we left off.”
Senior quarterback Michael Veldman played all 10 games for the first time last season, earning All-MIAC honors by completing 195 of 335 passes for 2,615 yards and 19 touchdowns. His career totals are 5,558 yards and 37 touchdowns.
“Mike is incredibly talented,” senior linebacker Jake Boykin said. “He’s in his fourth year, he has control of the offense. We have some tremendous weapons on the offense. There’s not a lot of matchups we like (in practice).”
Veldman has plenty of targets in the passing game. Senior Brice Panning was the team’s leading receiver with 48 receptions for 992 yards and three touchdowns, and senior Josh Kirk had 44 catches for 587 yards and four scores. Kirk has 93 receptions in his career and is trying to become the 12th player in program history with 100 or more catches.
Finch made 39 catches for 362 yards and five touchdown, and he rushed for 171 yards and three touchdowns, earning all-region honors.
“With so many guys back, everybody knew what they were doing from the start of fall camp,” Finch said. “Everyone has been really locked in.”
The offensive line has five players returning who started at least three games last season. Senior Blake Sikes is in his third season at left guard, while junior Logan Holley will move from right guard to center. The group will be counted on heavily as the Gusties try to develop a more productive rushing attack.
“You need big, strong guys up front,” Haugen said. “This is one of the deepest offensive lines we’ve had.”
The rushing attack will be handled by sophomores David Peal and and Dalton Thelen. Peal rushed for 436 yards and eight touchdowns last season, while Thelen rushed for 122 yards while catching six passes for 88 yards and a touchdown.
The Gusties also have plenty of experience on the defense, especially in the front seven. Sophomore lineman Zachary Jakes led the defense with 4.0 sacks, and he had 9.5 tackles for loss. Senior Zeke Erickson made 3.5 sacks and 6.0 tackles for loss.
Top tackler Matt Berkner has graduated, but senior Jake Boykin finished second on the team with 59 tackles and senior Avery Bachman had 47.
“The way we finished last year shows us we can compete with the top teams in the conference,” Bachman said. “This has been the best offseason we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
In the secondary, there will be some new starters, but junior Kaleb Scott forced three fumbles and made one interception last season, and senior Matthew Montplaisir had 28 tackles with three pass breakups.
“We have some new starters on the back end, but those kids have played a lot of varsity football,” Haugen said.
The schedule is once again loaded early with nonconference games against Martin Luther and Wisconsin-Stout, followed by MIAC games against St. John’s and Bethel. Haugen said winning is important, but it’s just as critical that his team play well in the first two games and build some confidence heading into that game at St. John’s.
“We need to take every rep and every game like it’s the most important thing,” Boykin said. “We’ve put in a ton of work in the offseason, and we need to make sure that continues. It’s important that we do things the right way.”
Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier.