Columbus Cardinals - Capitol North
Coach: Calvin Zenz (First Season)
2016 Result: 11-1 (5-0), 1st in the Capitol North (Lost to Cedar Grove-Belgium 35-28 in Level 3)
Three-Year Record: 28-6
2016 All-Conference Honors: 11 First-Team, 5 Second-Team, 1 Honorable Mention (17 total)
Three-Year All-Conference Totals: 27 First-Team, 17 Second-Team, 3 Honorable Mention (47 total)
Returning All-Conference Players (4): FB/LB Connor Manthey (First Team-LB) (Capitol North Defensive Player of the Year, 2016) (WSN Class of 2018 Others To Watch: LB), Sr.; OL/DL Noah Black (First Team-OL), Sr.; QB/DB/P Andy Vujnovich (Second Team-P), Sr.; WR/DB/KR/PR Cole Maxwell (First Team-ST in 2015), Sr.
Other Players To Watch: FB/LB Ben Waldo, Sr.; RB/DB Trey Hensler, Sr.; WR/LB Connor Westlake, Sr.; OL/DL Karson Klink, Sr.; OL/DL Tyler Kolman, Sr.; RB/LB Jay Hill, Jr.
BIG Games: vs Platteville August 25, at Lodi September 29, vs Lake Mills October 13
It's not often an 11-1 team sees a change at the top, but the Columbus Cardinals will be under new management for the 2017 season.
Calvin Zenz will move from offensive coordinator to the head coaching spot for the first time in his career, something that he has been working towards since he began coaching.
"How our defense plays will determine the outcome of our season. We still have some playmakers on offense that we know we can count on, but defensively, we have a lot of inexperienced talent. We have some pretty athletic guys, but they need to show they can get it done under the lights." - Columbus Head Coach Calvin Zenz
Zenz will inherit the program from Scott Hilber, who had coached the previous four seasons. Hilber's Cardinals went 5-4 in the postseason, reaching the state quarterfinals twice.
The cupboard won't be empty, although a very talented senior class exits. The Cardinals earned 17 total all-conference honors, but 10 of the players who helped achieve that number have graduated.
"They were a very talented and hard working group of guys," Zenz said. "They will be very hard to replace."
Returning is reigning Capitol North defensive player of the year, senior linebacker Connor Manthey. First-team offensive lineman Noah Black and second-team punter Andy Vujnovich are also back to the senior class, as is Cole Maxwell, who was a first-team special teams player in 2015.
Some of the other standouts in the senior class include two-way linemen Karson Klink and Tyler Kolman, as well as fullback/linebacker Ben Waldo, running back/defensive back Trey Hensler, and receiver/defensive back Connor Westlake. Running back/linebacker Jay Hill is one of the standouts from the incoming junior class.
Coach Zenz said to Mark McMullen of the Beaver Dam Daily Citizen that last year's juniors (now seniors) are ready to show what they can do, and that the sophomore class (now juniors), while smaller, is "coming along pretty well."
After having a dominating year defensively, Coach Zenz, despite previously being the offensive coordinator, believes that side of the ball will be the key to success in 2017.
"How our defense plays will determine the outcome of our season," said Coach Zenz. "We still have some playmakers on offense that we know we can count on, but defensively, we have a lot of inexperienced talent.
"We have some pretty athletic guys, but they need to show they can get it done under the lights."
The goals for the team invariably include winning a conference title and making a playoff run, now having made the postseason four years in a row after missing for seven straight seasons. After dropping to Division 5 for the playoffs last year, does it make a difference which field the Cardinals end up in?
"Not really," said Coach Zenz. "We’re on the bubble enrollment-wise, so we don’t really know what division we will be in. We just need to earn the right to be in them."
On the schedule, Columbus will face the same first two opponents as they did to start last year's 11-1 campaign. The Cardinals will open at Ripon, who Columbus drubbed 44-7 in 2016. Ripon finished 4-6 and lost by two points in the first round of the playoffs last year. After that opening road game, Columbus will welcome in Platteville, who tied for a conference championship last season and advanced to Level 2 of the playoffs. Platteville, who finished 8-3 last season, lost to Columbus 44-6.
Their Week 3 contest, the second of three straight home games, sees the Cardinals playing the Hurricanes of Marian Central Catholic in Illinois, a team that went 7-5 and went 2-1 in the playoffs last year. The follow-up to that game is Adams/Friendship to wrap up the homestand, a team that finished 9-1 in 2016.
Columbus opens up conference play with a road date at Watertown Luther Prep in Week 5. The Cardinals then return home to face Poynette on September 22.
In what has become one of the most highly-anticipated games in south-central Wisconsin the past several seasons, Columbus will play at Lodi on September 29. Last year, the Cardinals managed a 21-17 victory over Lodi, the only game Columbus won by fewer than three-plus scores.
Columbus finishes the season at home against Lakeside Lutheran and Lake Mills in back-to-back weeks, the latter of which finished up 2016 with a trip to Level 3.
In terms of a conference outlook, there may not be an undefeated conference champion in 2017, since every team will be re-loading for the 2017 season. The conference title favorites figure to be Lodi, Columbus, and Lake Mills, but the remaining three teams all will have their chances to make a run as well.
"I expect the conference to be very competitive," said Coach Zenz. "There are a lot of very talented teams and players."