MOUNT VERNON — The weight of expectation can be heavy.
A year ago, as the Mount Vernon football team made its way through an 11-3 season that ended in the state championship game, the Mustangs were most often the “nobody believes in us” team. With a sophomore quarterback and multiple players thrust into unexpected roles, Mount Vernon rarely was picked to win — especially in the Class 2A playoffs, facing three district champions — but proved its doubters wrong over and over.
Headed into 2016, despite losing, 70-56, to Spirit Lake in that title game, the Mustangs are the No. 1 team in 2A, have the core of their high-flying offense back and are hungry to finish what they started last year. They’re up against that shift in perception — and more importantly shutting out what anyone thinks of them — while living up to their own expectations.
“We don’t change a whole lot. Our goal was always, ‘What can we do?’ There’s only so many things you can control, and you try your best to control those things,” said head coach Lance Pedersen. “One of the things we’re working hard on is not talking about last year. I have an old saying that’s, ‘If what you did yesterday still looks big today, you haven’t done much today.’ We have to focus on the 2016 season.”
It’s often much easier for a team to embrace the underdog role than the opposite. Proving people wrong carries with it a special kind of pride.
But senior running back Jack Cochrane put it another way.
The Mount Vernon players want to back up what they knew about themselves last year and believe about themselves this year. Being the “big dogs” this time around won’t change how hard they go or what they expect from their opponents.
“Last year being the underdogs, we knew we had to come to play to get wins,” Cochrane said. “This year we know since we’re the big dogs, everyone is going to give us their best game. So we have to come play every week because everyone’s going to be out to beat us this year.
“We have big goals. But to accomplish those goals, we can’t look too far ahead. That’ll help us at the end of the year for sure.”
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The Mustangs are the “big dogs” because of a few key players. Cochrane, who at one time or another expected to be a quarterback and tight end, returns as the starting running back, coming off a season in which he ran for 1,056 yards and 21 touchdowns. Junior quarterback Drew Adams is back after throwing for 3,391 yards, 38 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last year. And anchoring both lines is senior and Iowa Hawkeye commit Tristan Wirfs, whose 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame dominates opposing linemen with regularity.
With his early commitment to Iowa, Wirfs’ contributions can be made without the pressure of the future hanging over him. Pedersen said there will be no protecting Wirfs for Iowa’s benefit this year, noting “what Iowa does with him in a year-and-a-half is up to them. Our job is to give him and our football team the best opportunity for success.”
That’s the way Wirfs wants it, too.
“I just want to help the team as much as I can, and if that’s playing both ways, that’s how it’s going to be. A lot of us here play both ways,” Wirfs said. “I was happy I committed when I did so I could have all my focus on the team this year and I can give them 100 percent this year. I want to play this last season with my brothers and give it my all.”
A No. 1 team with something to prove — that’s what appears to be the trait that sticks out the most for Mount Vernon as the season looms.
What they make of it, and how they manage using the title game loss as the appropriate amount of motivation, is what remains to be seen. Luckily for the Mustangs, Pedersen has seen this before — both personally, and as the son of a legendary high school coach (West Branch’s Butch Pedersen) — and knows exactly how he wants to attack it.
“We have to establish our own identity and with that, we have to make sure we continue to push each other forward,” Pedersen said. “There is some motivation there (in the title game loss), but you can’t look toward the last game because you’ll overlook the first game.
“Every week is important. We try to look at it as nine one-game seasons, and continue to work at that.”
MOUNT VERNON AT A GLANCE
• Coach: Lance Pedersen (88-39, 17-8 in 3 years at Mount Vernon)
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• Last year: 11-3 (lost in Class 2A state championship game to Spirit Lake)
• Top returning letterwinners: QB Drew Adams, RB/DB Jack Cochrne, OL-DL Tristan Wirfs, FB Sam Moore, OL/DL Ian Bootsmiller, OL/LB Hunter Hormann, DE Jack Bootsmiller, LB Colden Clark, K Zach Perry
• Key losses: WR Connor Herrmann, WR Tommy Hook, WR Carter Rodman, RB Mickey Hines, DB Joe Corcoran, OL/DL Charlie Engelbrecht.
• Key to making the playoffs: The Mustangs are the No. 1 team heading into the season in Class 2A, so making the playoffs isn’t really a concern. The only thing that could trip them up would be injuries to those key returners, specifically Wirfs and Cochrane.
• Games to watch: Week 1 at Solon, Week 4 vs Mid-Prairie, Week 7 at Mediapolis, Week 9 at Williamsburg
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