If Donny Holcomb was a comic strip character, the bubble above his head would have only a giant question mark.
More than any other team Holcomb has had during his seven seasons as Rochester Mayo’s head football coach, the 2018 Spartans have an uncertain future as the season begins.
A young team with more than a dozen new starters could struggle against a challenging schedule early in the season. On the other hand, Mayo’s quickly discovered chemistry — already evident after 10 days of practice — could help the Spartans team become greater than the sum of its parts.
“This group of kids is different,” Holcomb said. “Their ninth-grade year, they only lost one game, because they’re a group that wants to work hard and play for each other.
“It could go one way or it could go the other, but they’re going to stay together and keep fighting.”
Mayo hopes to build each week and play its best as the season draws to a close, much as it did a year ago. After an 0-3 start, the Spartans closed the regular season on a 4-1 stretch before being knocked off at home by rival Rochester Century, 7-6 in a Section 1AAAAA quarterfinal game. Mayo opens its season at 7 p.m. Friday against Austin at Mayo Stadium.
“We have a lot of kids who will play,” Holcomb said. “We told the guys, for the team’s sake we’ll rotate a lot of guys. We don’t want players getting tired, and they’re totally cool with that. They understand why we’re doing it that way. They have a great, unselfish attitude.”
A NEW-LOOK O-LINE
At no position does Mayo have more new faces than along the offensive line. The Spartans will rely on their agility and cohesiveness up front, as their line averages 212 pounds per player, with three starters weighing less than 200 pounds. Seniors Robert Schmitt and Quincy Hill will start at left and right tackle, respectively, while classmates Ethan Heinzel and Damon Hinrichs will fill the guard spots. Sophomore Hayden Myers will start at center.
“I like what we have in those guys,” Holcomb said. “Their discipline and ability to get off the ball together has been good.”
Hinrichs will be snapping to a new quarterback, as 5-foot-9, 150-pound Cade Sheehan takes over under center. Sheehan has shown versatility and the ability to run the ball, and even get out and block for his teammates if needed. His top targets will be receivers Jack Murphy, Alex Lopez, Calvin Dixon and Ethan Loehrer.
“(Sheehan) is a great example of, people will look at him and say ‘he’s undersized, wonder if he can do the job?’ but he’s a great leader, super hard worker,” Holcomb said. “He can do so many things. He’s what I want to see in a quarterback.”
Mayo’s experience on offense lies in the backfield, where standout senior running back Speedy Lozoya returns to lead the way. The 5-foot-9, 170-pounder is one of the strongest players on the team and brings tremendous vision and cut-back ability.
“Speedy’s biggest thing is, mentally, limit the mistakes, don’t put the ball on the carpet,” Holcomb said.
“When he makes a good read, he’s super-quick with his cuts, he can set up his blocks and change directions, and he’s a tough kid.
“He’s shown that he’s really improved in all areas. His leadership, along with Cade and (Murphy), has been excellent.”
EXPERIENCE ON ‘D’
Mayo’s defense will be put to the test early this season, as the Spartans open against a pair of high-powered offenses, Friday against Austin and Sept. 7 against Owatonna.
But Mayo has plenty of experienced players on the defensive side to lead the way.
That experience starts at linebacker, where a talented group resides. Lozoya and Cummings will share time at one outside position, while senior Eli Hart will start at middle linebacker and Lopez will start at strongside linebacker.
Murphy will start on both sides of the ball and hold down the strong safety position.
“We need those guys to be physical, step into their gaps and take on lead blockers,” Holcomb said. “They just need to play off their linemen and make tackles when they have the chance.”
Sheehan, Dixon and Loehrer will man the secondary, with Sheehan at a safety spot and the other two at cornerback.
Up front, the Spartans will be relatively inexperienced, but aggressive, with sophomore Jack Butrum and senior Drew Thompson at the ends, and 240-pound Ethan Irvin in the middle.
“If all 11 guys play their positions and play together, that’s all we’re asking,” Holcomb said.
McCABE BACK TO BOOT THE BALL
Senior Jake McCabe is back for his third season as Mayo’s kicker and punter. He gives the team a veteran weapon on special teams, showing range of 40 yards or more on field goals, and consistently putting kickoffs into the end zone.
“He went to a lot of camps this summer and got some exposure,” Holcomb said. “He’s doing his job to help the team and hopefully it gives our guys some confidence to know we have him there.”