To the untrained eye, little about Mound Westonka’s season-opening football practice Monday stood out. There were the usual helmets with no pads, coaches barking out instructions, arrays of drills run by various position groups, tired players pushing themselves through the final conditioning sprints of the day.
But there was a buzz in the background, noticeable if one knew where to look. This was a first day like few others in the school’s history. After an 8-1 campaign in 2015, there is the hint of swagger. Not cockiness by any means — Mound Westonka had not finished above .500 since 1980 before last season — but an air of confident expectations. The White Hawks know now what they are capable of accomplishing.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” fourth-year head coach Nick David said. “Expectations are really high. They don’t dread practice anymore.”
After such a stellar season, motivated players are to be expected. But the excitement is not limited to the players. The entire school — indeed, the community at large — sat up and took notice of the White Hawks’ remarkable season. Players, often overlooked in school hallways in previous seasons, became heroes. Assistant Principal Marty Fischer has been at the high school for 23 years, the past 18 in his current role, and he said the enthusiasm created by the football team resonated throughout the school.
“You could feel the excitement in the halls,” Fischer said. “It carried over into the classroom, into the stands and into other sports. Even into the summer conditioning program, where we had more numbers than ever. We used to have summers where it was pretty dead around here. Now that’s in the past. You have this excitement, whether it’s on social media or in physical presence. It’s translated to an energy that’s built well before the season starts.”
David said he has been repeatedly recognized and congratulated on trips about town.
“What was fun was stopping at Carbone’s or at Walgreens and people would be calling ‘Hey Coach, see you at the game’ and things like that,” David recalled. “I got so many e-mails from alumni, pumped that the program was finally starting to get back to where it used to be. We got a lot of positive feedback.”
The success has filtered down to the youth level, where interest in football is as high as it’s been in years.
Randy Heuer, a longtime school district employee, was stunned when he saw the turnout for summer youth camps on the school’s practice fields.
“There were a lot of players out there,” Heier said, shaking his head in wonder. “More than I’ve ever seen before.”
Star running back Isaiah Cherrier is being pursued by many of the top collegiate football programs in the Upper Midwest including North Dakota State and South Dakota State. Having played in the Westonka football program since third grade, he has seen many former youth teammates leave for other schools. That, he said, was a big mistake.
“I always thought that if we all stayed together, we could make this program good,” Cherrier said. “And we’ve finally done that. I think we are going to be better this year than we were last year.”
Of course, turning a program around takes more than one good season. David has emphasized putting last year in the rearview mirror, knowing opponents no longer will see the White Hawks as a pushover.
“I’ve talked to them about that a couple of times. We’re going to get everyone’s best game and have a target on our backs,” he said. “But you know what? I think that makes it more fun.”
Not everything was perfect in 2015, however. Mound Westonka ended the year on a down note, losing to Richfield 23-22 in overtime in the Section 5, Class 4A playoffs. The pain from that loss has lingered, still as much a part of the team at the eight victories the preceded it.
“Growing up in Mound, where there’s been a losing streak since the ’70s, and to change things like we did, that’s a good feeling,” said senior quarterback Brennen Burroughs. “But I’ve got a sour taste in my mouth. I can’t help but think how much farther we can take it.”