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From underdogs to champs: The rise of the MLC football team

After going winless in the 2016 season, head coach Mark Stein has turned things around at MLC

Photo courtesy of MLC Athletics Martin Luther College football coach Mark Stein has taken the Knights to the NCAA Division III national tournament two consecutive years after the program went winless in 2016. Now the Knights have quickly become an Upper Midwest Athletic Conference power and they’re looking ahead to continue the run.

NEW ULM — Martin Luther College football coach Mark Stein has it pretty good these days. The head coach just wrapped up another successful season, leading the Knights to a 9-2 record overall and a second straight NCAA Division III tournament football appearance after winning the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference for the second year in a row.

But Stein has to be humble, because a few years ago, he was on the opposite end of the standings, sitting at 0-10 for the 2016 season.

He knows that those days are behind him. The freshmen from that 2016 team just finished their senior year of college football and lost their NCAA tournament game to Wheaton. But the building blocks are in place for what Stein hopes will be a long run atop the UMAC standings for the Knights.

The senior class

This year’s senior class got a rude awakening to college football in their freshmen year. Back in 2016, that group went 0-10, but a lot of the players got valuable playing time. Undersized and inexperienced, they ran into bigger, stronger and more established teams in the UMAC every week and the results weren’t good.

Photo courtesy of MLC Athletics Martin Luther College running back Austin DeNoyer is the Knights’ leading rusher this year. He has teamed up with Joshua Kren to give the Knights more than 2,300 yards rushing on the year.

That same group experienced some success in 2017 as the Knights went 5-5. But few expected what would happen in 2018.

There, the Knights opened the season with a 32-20 loss to Gustavus Adolphus College, but in Week 2, the Knights defeated Rockford 28-24 and then UMAC opponent Greenville 63-28. The wins kept coming, defeating St. Scholastica, Iowa Wesleyan, Westminster on homecoming and then Northwestern 21-6. At that point, the Knights were winning some close games thanks to the running attack and a strong junior class.

The Knights won the UMAC title after defeating Crown 47-18 to qualify for their first-ever NCAA tournament game.

There, the Knights met Division III national power St. John’s and it didn’t end well. St. John’s ended MLC’s season with an 84-6 win, but the Knights had a strong core of seniors coming back the next year. And it didn’t stop at just the seniors.

“It’s interesting, because the senior class that has set a standard, that the freshmen, sophomores and juniors have really bought into,” Stein said. “I say this all the time, there are some football players behind the starters this year, that are some just tremendous football players.”

Photo courtesy of MLC Athletics Martin Luther College head coach Mark Stein talks to a player at a practice this fall. Stein led the Knights to a 9-2 record this year.

This year’s senior class helped lead the Knights to another 9-2 record and a perfect 8-0 in the UMAC. And while it’s always tough for a coaching staff to say goodbye to a class that they’ve spent four years with, college coaches have to always be looking ahead, too.

“I know there’s going to be an adjustment period with leadership and experience, but the sophomores and juniors are extremely gifted,” Stein said. “We will miss our seniors because of what they’ve done, but I’m super excited about the young guys and I know the defensive staff is, too. Those guys put in the time and have been patient. They haven’t played that much, except for on special teams, and it’s been really neat to watch them develop.”

Stein said that winning has brought this group of seniors and underclassmen together. He said that there is no one chasing individual stats and that they’re focused on one thing only: winning.

“We talk about the brotherhood all the time, and I think they honestly feel like brothers,” Stein said. “They take care of each other, the brotherhood of this team is something special, there’s not a lot of individual play. I’ll go to Jacob [senior defensive end Jacob Schmidt], Jacob is a guy that is first-team all-conference two years in a row and he doesn’t start every game. That’s because there’s another senior defensive end that’s just as good as him, they rotate that defensive end position. It’s amazing, he never says a word, and neither does Keith Brassow and neither does Nate Holz [both senior defensive linemen]. Austin DeNoyer and Josh Kren [MLC’s running backs that have more than 2,300 yards rushing and 24 rushing touchdowns combined], they don’t look at it as a ‘me’ thing. They don’t care who gets the football. They just want to win.”

Stein also said that the rest of the UMAC coaches have been supportive of what the Knights have accomplished in the last few years.

“For the most part the UMAC coaches have been supportive and are like ‘how did you do that’, we just had our conference call and they were wishing us good luck [in the NCAA game against Wheaton],” Stein said. “All those guys are competitors, too. I’m sure that they want to beat us, and they’re working hard to do it. They’ve got some great abilities and there’s some good coaches in this league. But they’ve never stabbed us in the back, the UMAC is pretty tight, even the difference between the north and the south. We’ve got each other’s backs.”

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