Quinn Lemke was a water boy for the Mahtomedi football team his freshman year, before playing varsity. He watched that team and others fail to get through section playoffs. Now, he’s a senior captain playing middle linebacker and offensive guard for the Zephyrs.

He’s been part of the teams that saw their seasons end against Spring Lake Park in the section semifinals in 2013 and final in 2014. This year, he and his teammates would like to leave the losses behind.

“It kind of carries over a lot,” Lemke said. “These kids want to work harder than the kids the year before.”

Senior captain Brandon Hull, a two-way lineman, knows how close he and his teammates got to the state tournament last year. They have to push even harder this year, he said.

“Those tough losses just make motivation for us,” Hull said. “We work so hard, and then it just ended like that.”

Mahtomedi has been in the state tournament 11 times, winning a title in 2005 and appearing four consecutive times from 2007-10. The Zephyrs opened their 2015 season on Saturday at St. Thomas Academy in a game played after this edition was printed.

The biggest difference for this season is the state’s football schedule getting pushed up. Instead of a scrimmage to get a feel for player performances, the first matchup with an opponent begins the regular season.

“We’re going to kind of have to evaluate kids on the fly,” said coach Dave Muetzel, in his ninth year leading the program.

Mahtomedi lost a few players to graduation, including the starting quarterback, leaving holes to fill. Players are fighting for a lot of spots, Muetzel said. In the process, he said, he hopes they can work on “going out and executing every single time out.”

“The big thing for me is improvement each day,” Muetzel said. “And putting our best foot forward each day, and sometimes that’s hard.”

Another change this year is the switch from conferences to districts. Mahtomedi will be in the East Metro District, made up of familiar foes. The competition is pretty even across the board, Muetzel said.

“If you don’t come out and play that week, you’re going to lose,” Muetzel said. “You can’t take a week off.”

Even with just a few practices, Muetzel hopes his team’s balance will bring success. The Zephyrs will have four, five or six guys scoring points and making tackles, “as opposed to having just one stud,” Muetzel said. He hopes the strong defensive game, with experienced returning players, will be a bright spot, too.

Lemke agrees there’s a lot of depth on this team, with strength on both sides of the ball. The leadership is there throughout the team as well. Everyone helps each other during practice, on and off the field, Lemke said.

“I think that’s what a team needs to make it to the next step,” Lemke said.

There might be a lot of uncertainties with the start of the season, but one thing is true: Mahtomedi will not lose to Spring Lake Park for a third consecutive year in the section playoffs. The teams are not in the same section anymore. Mahtomedi is in Section 4, and Spring Lake Park in Section 5 in Class 5A.

But every section has good teams, and you have to beat whichever team you face, Muetzel said.

He describes his team as hard-nosed and one that will “come at you,” still with one overall goal in mind.

“The mind-set of improving each day,” Muetzel said. “I know it’s a cliché, and it sounds simple. If we can stay focused on that, the big things will take care of themselves.”