It was a beautiful August afternoon when the 2005 St. Olaf football team reconvened on the Hill for the first day of fall practice and I happened to be on campus for the occasion. The atmosphere was one of tightly-contained excitement sure, everyone knew that there would be plenty of blood, sweat and hard work to come in the weeks and months ahead but at that moment, these Oles were happy to joke around with the old friends and teammates whom they had not seen since the previous school year.
A lot happened between Aug. 19 and Nov. 12, much of it good, some it not-so-good. But no matter which way you slice it, the 2005 St. Olaf football season can be characterized in only one way: An unconditional success.
After the team started 7-0 for the first time since 1978, it would be easy to be disappointed with the teams 8-2 final record. After all, 8-2 is only one game better than last seasons record of 7-3, and the 2005 iteration of Ole football was markedly more talented than last years version.
In a season in which so much went St. Olafs way, it might seem only natural to focus on the two things that went awry. Namely, the back-to-back road losses at the hands of playoff-bound St. Johns and Concordia, in which the Oles were outscored 112-38.
Yet, when you take a closer look at the recent history of St. Olaf football, you realize how impressive that 8-2 record really is, and just what a tremendous job head coach Chris Meidt and his staff have done in revitalizing this program.
Through sheer hard work and dedication, the Ole football staff has taken a program that was amongst the dregs of the MIAC for much of the 90s (St. Olaf finished at or near the bottom of the standings every year of the decade, save 91) and turned it into one of the best in the conference. No other MIAC football team has undergone such a dramatic transformation in that short period of time; neither has any other St. Olaf sports program, for that matter.
Yet, in the end, you dont win with coaches you win with players, and Meidt would be undoubtedly be the first to admit this. It took a special group of athletes to catapult the Oles into the realm of the MIACs elite, and many of those players will be sorely missed next season; none more than senior quarterback Jason Wilsey, who followed a somewhat inconsistent junior campaign (albeit his first as a starter) with arguably the greatest single-season performance by an Ole quarterback ever.
The Oles must also replace five other key starters in 2006: seniors Matt Dean, John Davis, Tony DeLaHunt, Andre Conner and Pete Cathcart. None of these individual losses are insurmountable, but they will require certain unproven players to step up and fill key roles. This is always a big if in college athletics there are no quick-fix free agents to sign at this level.
Even if St. Olaf does happen to experience a bit of a drop-off next season, the tide of battle has already turned. Coach Meidt has revamped the teams recruiting strategy to ensure that a steady stream of talent is constantly flowing into the program (no small feat given the colleges increasingly-strenuous admissions requirements). There are currently enough talented players in the system to make winning seasons very likely possibilities for 2006 and 2007.
The Oles may have come up short against the big boys of the MIAC this fall, but their overall performance this season has proven to the rest of the Division III football world that the conference is no longer just a two-team race between the Johnnies and the Cobbers. St. Olaf football took a big step forward in 2005, and I know they wont rest until they reach the top.