Rebuilding the MLC football program

Photo courtesty of MLC Athletic Department Martin Luther College third-year coach Mark Stein (center, red shirt) talks to his players during a game. Stein has the Knights off to a quick start and the program is seeing a rise in numbers. Stein went 2-18 in his first two seasons but is hoping that he can lead the program to better days ahead.

NEW ULM — In just a matter of one August day two summers ago, Mark Stein’s professional life at Martin Luther College changed without much warning.

That August day in 2015, Stein was working in his office when he was approached by Martin Luther College President Mark Zarling about taking over the school’s recent head football coaching opening.

At the time, Stein was serving as the school’s Director of Admissions, a title he’s had since his arrival at the school in 2011. He was a long-time high school football coach in Wisconsin and was working with Minnesota Valley Lutheran head coach Jim Buboltz as an assistant coach.

Stein’s meeting with Zarling was short and he was told to go home and think about the offer. He talked to his wife Melissa. But there was no hiding the fact that he wanted the job and he was going to take it, despite facing a very tough rebuilding project for a team that had fewer than 30 players on the 2015 roster, a number that is similar to a lot of Class A high school football programs here in Minnesota.

The man who got away from the busy task of coaching high school football was now coaching again, this time at a much higher level with more of a workload.

Mark Stein MLC Football Coach Coaching at a glance 2015 2-8 2016 0-10 2017 3-2 (Record as of Friday, Oct. 6) Career 5-20

A new football chapter at MLC

Stein accepted the challenge. The first year he had to build a team basically from scratch. He coached MLC’s all-time leading rusher, Matt Olson, but that running game wasn’t enough. The Knights finished 2-8 and the wins and losses didn’t get better the next year when the team went 0-10 in his second year at MLC.

MLC’s biggest challenge in those years was a lack of male athletes coming to the school. Numbers were down across the board for all of the sports and it was a rough stretch of years at the school.

The school’s Athletic Director and former men’s basketball coach, Jim Unke, acknowledged that there were several factors with MLC’s recent struggles in various sports.

“That’s kind of due to a lot of a different things,” Unke said. “We went through a pretty long drought of male athletes, it was nobody’s fault, we just didn’t have the athletes and it showed up in all of our sports. We were looking for guys to fill our rosters and that has changed. I give our high schools credit for emphasizing the importance of ministry, which is why we’re here.”

Staff photo by Steve Muscatello Martin Luther College freshman quarterback Zachary Bloomquist is part of a youth movement for the college football team. The Knights finished 0-10 a year ago but are 3-2 on the season under the direction of third-year head coach Mark Stein.

Stein hit the recruiting trail hard after the first season. He brought in a strong freshman class that struggled because it was so young. The team was mostly 18- and 19-year olds suiting up against players 22 and 23 years old every weekend and the Knights took their lumps.

“At the college level it’s all about recruiting, obviously,” Stein said. “When I took over the program about 10 days before that first season, there were 28 guys in the program and in Division III you can’t run a program like that. We jumped up to 34 or 35 that first year and then last year we were up to 42 or 43 kids.”

The program hasn’t had a winning season since 2010, when the Knights went 5-4. Since the 2011 season (including this year), the Knights are 17-48, which is a .262 winning percentage.

Stein’s ability to build relationships with players and high school coaches and his ability to recruit won over a lot of incoming freshman for the 2016 season. Despite the fact that the team didn’t win a game that year, the Knights showed improvement with a young team.

Stein’s takeover of the MLC program was similar to what he did while at Shoreland Lutheran High School in Wisconsin. There, he took over a program that was in existence for one year and built it into a powerhouse. Stein led the program to a conference championship in 2005, which marked the first of seven consecutive seasons in which the program qualified for the WISAA state playoffs.

Prior to his years at Shoreland, Stein was an assistant coach at Wisconsin Lutheran High School for five years. During that time, he led that program to a WISAA State Championship in 1998.

But at the college level it can take a while to build a competitive team. However, Stein seems to be on the fast track. His freshmen and sophomore classes have plenty of good athletes and the numbers for the program should keep growing next year.

There are currently 53 players on the roster. He’s hoping that number continues to grow.

“I think that 70 is a good goal,” Stein said. “But to be honest, if you take the numbers that we’ve already talked about and add another 25 we’re going to be past that next year. I would say 75-80 kids is not out of the question.”

Building the program

In Stein’s first two years of coaching, the Knights went a combined 2-18. While that’s not something that jumps out to potential recruits at first, the program was slowly turning the corner.

There were several schools in the WELS school system that had successful high school seasons and he just happened to know most of the high school coaches affiliated with MLC.

“He was a known commodity at the high school level,” Unke said. “A lot of the people at MLC have come from high schools and that really benefits the benefits the communications between the institutions.”

That 2016 season saw the Knights get shut out three times and they were outscored 412-97. It was a team that was loaded with freshman (28 total, according to the MLC website) and it was tough for a lot of those involved.

“The biggest difference was that last year (2016) was my first freshman class that I got to recruit and there were almost 30 of them,” Stein said. “Then this year we have another strong freshman class. I think we have 55 [out for the sport] right now and that’s with 11 juniors and seniors.”

Stein was well aware that changing the program wasn’t going to happen overnight. So he, along with his assistants and players, started to work together to build a better program.

“It takes time so when you talk about buy-in, even though there’s not a lot of juniors and seniors, they’ve all bought in and they’ve bought in and they’ve been great,” Stein said. “The first thing I did was establish an offseason program with strength and conditioning coach Steve Pearson. He’s probably been one of the biggest reasons why we’ve turned this thing around, because our offseason is awesome and Steve has basically has done that. And Jim Unke has given us the means to do that, we have a new team weight room for all of the athletes and the football team bought into it right away.

“That’s been part of the process of building a program, setting the standards and the kids have been great,” Stein said. “From juniors and seniors to the freshmen and sophomores, they’ve been supportive of that because they came from programs that have been successful.”

Stein said that the current sophomore class was a class that set the tone for future classes because it worked hard and was dedicated despite the tough times. The players reached out to future recruits through texting and social media and told them how they enjoyed college life in New Ulm.

“Last year’s freshmen class surprised me because we did get a lot of really good athletes and they came after winning two games that previous year,” Stein said. “Last year’s team was 0-10 and our Week 10 practices were some of the most spirited practices we’ve had. Guys were having fun and we just went all out. We had our best offensive game of the year that week (a 42-25 loss to MacMurray), we rushed for 408 yards. We got beat, but you could see the kids kind of build.”

So far in 2017, the Knights are off to a 3-2 start prior to Saturday’s homecoming game against UM-Morris. Not too bad for a team full of underclassmen.

Moving the sticks forward

Stein takes pride in the progress the football program has made both on and off the field. MLC continues to be a strong academic school and that’s what he’s most proud of.

“I think our kids take great pride in student athletes,” Stein said. “As young as our class is, we have a football study table every night. It’s not required but every freshman is there and the seniors run it. They work together and help each other.”

As far as the program, it looks bright with potential student athletes having success at the high school level.

“We had visitors here from St. Croix [Lutheran] here from The Cities. We’ve got some great players from them already and we expect to have more great players from there. Wisconsin Lutheran High School, the same thing. I’m friends with those coaches so we get together and then I get to watch their video. I’ll try to get to their games after our season. This senior class in our church and high schools is loaded There’s a ton of talent.”

It’s easy to get excited about the future for Stein and the coaching staff. Of course, he’s approaching it the only way — one week at a time.

“That’s exciting to me in the offseason, but I’m trying to win [this week],” Stein said. “It is nice when you think about it, there’s some pretty special kids coming to MLC in the future and there’s some pretty special kids here now to watch.”