HOWARD COUNTY, RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE — The football history at St. Paul High School isn’t what the average football fan would look at and say the Wildcats are a small-town Nebraska prep juggernaut.
For sure, this is not Aquinas or Neumann or Pierce. Not Cambridge or Aurora or Howells. Heck, until this senior class came along, the St. Paul Wildcats had made 11 appearances in the round of 16 in the state football playoffs and won two games.
But, when head coach Rusty Fuller came to St. Paul in 2014, he knew that he had a chance to build a winning program. And, the group that might allow him to do it was a group of ten boys in the fifth grade.
“I watched them play youth tackle football,” Fuller says, a grin on his face in the weight room that has helped build his foundation. “It was kind of neat to watch, we knew they’d be something special.
“There was a lot of buzz around it. (Huskerland Prep Report, editor) Bob Jensen said there isn’t usually a lot of buzz around sixth or seventh graders, but there was around these kids. This class has just been special. Their chemistry has always been really strong.”
Seven years on, the Wildcats enter the 2020 playoffs as a team that many think could make a push toward Lincoln. Something, obviously, that has never happened in St. Paul. That’s not lost on two of the leaders of the ten man class that has changed Fuller’s culture: Eli Larson and Tommy Wroblewski.
Eli and Tommy — journalists are supposed to use last names, but these two make you feel like you can just use their first names — couldn’t be more different.
Eli is a ringleader type — the 5,000 yard rusher who backs down from nothing. You’d think he’s the guy who the Cats look to prior to the game to make their eyes light up.
Tommy is more reserved, answering questions in the simplest form, the guy who goes around the locker room before the game and doesn’t say anything, but hits you on the shoulder pad to make sure you are ready
Leaders in different, but very important, ways.
“I used to get all the rushing yards, until he started stealing them from me,” Tommy jokes, as the recorder hasn’t been running for a minute. “He was a lineman, now he’s got 5,000 yards or whatever.”
Eli shrugs, but neither of them care. They just want to win. Ever since fifth grade.
“When we started, we were a middle of the road program,” Larson said. “But, coach Fuller has developed us and developed our program to where we are now. We are excited to see growth and wins in the playoffs.
“That’s where we want this program to be.”
Last November didn’t end how St. Paul expected. Eventual champion Oakland-Craig controlled their semifinal contest from the beginning, a 54-13 win.
The road back has been harder than they thought, too.
Coronavirus made workouts more individual than they wanted them to be. And, in late March, John Wroblewski was diagnosed with cancer. Chemo was going well, but in late summer the cancer had metastasized to his lungs.
Ten days before kickoff — August 18 — John passed away at home. His funeral was the following Monday and Tommy would begin his senior year with his best friends against Pierce four days later, on Friday.
“My teammates have helped me get through the season, for sure,” Tommy said. “The senior class got me a football and signed it and that meant the world.”
The opening loss to Pierce — it was 55-38 for the Bluejays — was almost the perfect teaching lesson, coach Fuller said. Both for football, and for life. His team has been flawless since.
“We learned we have to have more bodies, they gassed us,” Fuller said. “We only played 14 or 15 guys and we found some nice surprises after that game. (Ansley-Litchfield transfer) Quade Peterson, he didn’t play that game at all, now he’s playing at an all-state level. He has 20 pancakes.”
Fuller also said that junior Rylie Thomsen and sophomore Mason Anderson have also been key additions to the Wildcat line rotation and keeping fresh bodies in the game.
But, the coach said, the team also rallied around each other. A JW sticker is on the back of their helmet, a constant reminder of playing for something bigger than themselves.
“The guys understood the importance of what Tommy’s dad meant to him,” Fuller said. “And, they wanted to play their tails off for him. The kids have become so much closer after that first game. This season is really a tribute to him.”
The final run begins Friday night against Cozad.
All those seniors who each know their role so well — the sign of a team that has championship goals — do it one more time. Tommy and Eli want you to know their names, too.
Brendan Knapp. Kaden Kocian. Gunnar Nyberg. Nathan Scheer. Kaleb Peterson. Jakob Syring. Isiah Sack. Logan Vogel. Those guys are just as important to the team as Eli and Tommy.
“It’s a special group,” Eli said. “We are so close knit. We can just sit down and have a conversation with each other, which is awesome. Even our parents, they are all good friends.”
“This whole group, our whole team, we don’t have any bad connections,” Tommy said. “All the way down to everyone on our team. We love to hang out outside of school and outside of sports.”
As for the coach, he knows it’s a special time.
“I am having a blast,” Fuller said. “Quite honestly, you’ll remember that this is the best class in St. Paul history. They set school records and they did it unselfishly, that is what makes them so great. I can’t wait to give them hugs when they come back.”
So Friday, there will be paint in the windows on the businesses that line the bricks which head to the high school.
The boys, who someday want to be Eli and Tommy and all those other seniors, will pick sides on the west side of the field and play a pick up game.
The girls will have on the road jersey of their favorite player and the mom’s will scream for their boys who try to add on to their legacy.
And, they want that legacy to be simple, just like how they played football.
“That we helped flip our football program around,” Larson said.
And, then Tommy with a grin. “That when people played St. Paul, they felt it for a few days.”
Yeah. They’ll remember these Wildcats — especially these ten seniors — for a long time in Howard County.