After back-to-back trips to Level 3 after the 2016 season, Columbus graduated the core of their conference title-winning team. 2017 was a reset year, as the Cardinals battled a tough schedule, but the hard lessons learned should pay off in 2018.
With only five seniors out for football in 2018, it would appear on paper that the Cardinals enter the upcoming season inexperienced, but the 2020 class, which comprises most of the returning varsity players for the upcoming campaign, saw extensive playing time as sophomores.
"We played a lot of young kids last year," said head coach Calvin Zenz, entering his second year. "In one game, we started 11 of 22 sophomores."
Zenz points out that of the returning seniors, only three were starters a year ago. He also says that the recent success of the program is still part of the culture. "Nothing has changed in terms of expectations," he said. "We played a real tough schedule last year."
Quarterback Joe Morris, who coach Zenz admits was "thrown into the fire" as a sophomore by necessity, returns to a backfield that graduated its top four rushers from 2017. That'll open opportunities for Jay Hill, said coach Zenz, as well as others vying for time in training camp.
Wide receiver will be another position of training camp competition, to see who will line up with Trent Casper, who earned second-team all-conference recognition last year. Alex Campbell is the only returning player who caught a pass last year, and he had one reception.
On the other side of the ball, there's not the sort of skill position turnover that the offense has, and coach Zenz is eager to get started with the defense. "I feel like with our linebackers, we have great athleticism," he said.
Casper made second-team all-conference last year as well at outside linebacker, and the Cardinals return Teagan Herschleb (honorable mention all-conference) to the secondary, as well as Jevin Burbach to the front seven. Burbach was fourth on the team in tackles last season.
Jay Hill and Alex Campbell both fielded returns last year, but the team will have to replace their outstanding kicker/punter, Andy Vujnovich. Kendall Minick made his only extra point attempt last year and also had five punts for a 32.2-yard average.
Six of the Cardinals' first seven games are against 2017 playoff teams, including one state champion and two conference champions. The opener is a home game against Omro, but then Columbus hits the road for five straight weeks. First up is a trip to Ralph E. Davis Pioneer Stadium to take on Platteville in Week 2, followed by a battle with the Capitol South champs from a season ago, New Glarus/Monticello.
The road trip continues with a trip up to Adams/Friendship to wrap up non-conference play. Capitol North play begins with back-to-back trips to Lake Mills, first to take on Lakeside Lutheran on September 14 and then to battle Lake Mills in Week 6.
Columbus finally returns home to take on Lodi on September 28, their first home game in six weeks. They'll get another home game in Week 8 against Luther Prep before finishing up the regular season at Poynette on October 12.
Here is The Big 1070's interview with Columbus Cardinals head coach Calvin Zenz:
Columbus Cardinals - Capitol North
Head Coach: Calvin Zenz (2nd Season) 2-7
2017 Result: 2-7 (1-4), 5th in the Capitol North
Three-Year Record: 23-10 (4-2 Playoffs)
2017 All-Conference Honors: 3 First-Team, 5 Second-Team, 2 Honorable Mention (10 total)
Three-Year All-Conference Totals: 23 First-Team, 16 Second-Team, 4 Honorable Mention (43 total)
Returning All-Conference Players (3): WR/LB Trent Casper (2nd Team-WR and LB), Sr.; OL/DL James Roche (HM-OL), Jr.; DB/WR Teagan Herschleb (HM-DB), Jr.
Other Players To Watch: FB/LB/ST Jamal (Jay) Hill, Sr.; LB/TE Skyler Peterson, Sr.; DB/WR Sam Kahl, Sr.; OL/DL Dylan Haak, Sr.; QB/DB Joe Morris, Jr.; OL/LB/K/P Kendall Minick, Jr.; WR/DB/ST Alex Campbell, Jr.; WR/DB Conner Maxwell, Jr.; DB/WR Jevin Burbach, Jr.; OL/DL Miguel Miranda, Jr.; OL/DL Tayvon Hayes, Jr.; DL/OL Nike Posthuma, Jr.; DB/QB Evan Anderson, Jr.; OL/DL Ryan King, So.
BIG Games: at New Glarus/Monticello, August 31; at Lakeside Lutheran, September 13; vs Lodi, September 28