MARKESAN – Many of the players are the same as in previous years, but there’s something different about this Markesan prep football team as it prepares to play Fond du Lac St. Mary’s Springs in a WIAA Division 6 state semifinal game today at Slinger High School.
The Hornets have made it to the playoffs the last four seasons – losing in the first round in 2014 and 2015 before finally beating Cuba City in overtime last season.
And it was that 34-28 overtime win over the Cubans that served as a launching pad for where the Hornets are now.
That win “gave us confidence going into this year,” Markesan head coach Travis Winkers said.
“We’ve just been confident,” senior linebacker Ty Plagenz added. “When we’re on the field, we feel we’re the meanest, biggest, fastest guys out there. We’re out there just to kick you in the dirt and step on your throat. That’s all there is to it.”
All that confidence didn’t pay off in Week 1 of this season, though, as the Hornets suffered a 35-0 loss to Springs to kick off the campaign.
Still, Winkers liked what he saw in that game.
“We didn’t get physically dominated,” he said. “I know the score says we did, but it wasn’t a beat down like we had at Pecatonica/Argyle in the (second round of the) playoffs last year. I think knowing that we were out dudes (who weren’t able to play) and we were playing with some backups that haven’t really played outside of Week 3, I think that has a lot to do with it too, (in terms of) confidence (this time against Springs).”
It was like the loss got lost in the back of the Hornets’ minds; they learned from it, but they didn’t dwell on it.
“You don’t get used to losing,” Plagenz said. “You get used to winning. That makes a big difference.”
And the wins just kept on coming for the Hornets, who are currently 11-1 entering Friday’s game with the 12-0 Ledgers, winners of four out of the last six D6 state titles and the D5 state title in 2009.
“Us 15 seniors are really connecting,” senior center Tanner Weber said. “We’re going to go into this game thinking, ‘We are the team.’ Past years we could’ve thought, ‘We’re going to go into this game and we’re going to be the usual Markesan team.’
“This year is different.”
When the Hornets get out to a strong start and don’t turn the ball over, watch out.
“We don’t turn over the ball, we’re tough to beat,” Winkers said. “It’s what it comes down to. Springs is the only team to hold us to 90 yards, which is really impressive. That’s the type of defense they have. Then Pardeeville held us to 300-something because we had three or four turnovers.
“With everyone else, we’ve been over 400 every game. When we do that and the defense gives us their turnovers – we’re top three in the state in creating turnovers – our defense is (tough).”
Besides the uptick in confidence, there are two other things different about Markesan this year compared to previous years.
The first one is the seniors on the team have set a precedent in the weight room.
“Our grade is the first grade to have four years of lifting (in the current program) for sure. In years past they only had a couple of years because coach wasn’t here at that point,” Weber said. “Having that also helps us win games because we’re stronger and more fit than everybody else.”
That added strength has helped the Hornets win 11 straight, including the last three, all against Southwest Wisconsin Activities League Conference teams – Darlington (44-14), Fennimore (15-7) and Mineral Point (47-26).
“Every win you get against non-Trailways teams you put that stigma of the Trailways being bad right to bed,” Winkers said. “Darlington had a somewhat down year; regardless, they’re still Darlington.”
Darlington made it to the state championship game last season against Regis and despite a bit of a down year and barely sneaking into the playoffs, was still one of the top three teams in the SWAL this season.
In fact, Markesan’s sweep of those three SWAL teams made a big impression.
“The biggest compliment we’ve gotten from those coaches is, ‘You guys are a physical bunch.’ That’s what I talk about with winning games. That’s the difference. It’s the confidence and just the physical-ness we’re playing with.”
Markesan is able to be extra physical because only a select few – Zac Triggs, Austin Triggs, Drew Bernhagen – play both ways.
Weber said with most of his teammates playing on one side of the ball, players aren’t “out of breath or out of shape” when they’re on the field.
“We’re going to the ball knowing that we’re going to rock this play,” he said.
Winkers said not having many two-way players also gives the players who do only play on one side of the ball opportunities to talk to the offensive or defensive coaches on the sidelines.
“It’s constant communication with the coaches that you don’t get if they’re always on the field,” he said.
All of these new traits this year’s Hornets posses have helped them get to where they are now, and, they hope, to Camp Randall Stadium next week.
Either way, they’re up for the challenge.
“I know Springs is really, really good, but we’re going to give them one hell of a fight,” Winkers said.
“When we’re on the field, we feel we’re the meanest, biggest, fastest guys out there. We’re out there just to kick you in the dirt and step on your throat.” Linebacker Ty Plagenz