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COLUMBUS — Teagan Herschleb’s expectations entering last season were modest: The safety for the Columbus prep football team simply wanted to play well.

Turns out, his ceiling was a lot higher than that.

Herschleb finished the regular season as the state’s co-leader in interceptions with eight, garnering the 6-foot-2, 160-pounder first-team all-state honors in the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association’s Small Schools division as well as honorable mention all-state honors among all divisions according to the Associated Press.

“That’s something I’ve always dreamed of, to be one of the best kids in the state,” Herschleb said. “It’s happening.”

He’s added 10 pounds heading into his senior year and said he’s not taking last year’s success for granted — he’s going to continue working tirelessly at trying to maintain his status among the state’s elite at his position.

This year, though, he hopes that comes with more team success as Columbus was 1-8 overall a year ago and last in the Capitol North Conference at 0-5 due in large part to only having five seniors on the roster and a large number of underclassmen.

Herschleb’s ball-hawking reputation might very well help the Cardinals turn the tide in a winning direction in a different way than you’d imagine, too.

“Teams may throw away from him this year and he may not have as many opportunities,” said Chris Herschleb, Teagan’s dad as well as the Cardinals’ defensive backs coach. “He may have four interceptions or none, but it may be a better season because he’s changing the field out there.”

Teagan’s attitude is following suit.

“It’s been, ‘Go be the best teammate you can be and be the best you (that) you can be. Don’t try to be the label; the label will come with your performance,’” Chris said.

Aside from his big interceptions total — he returned one for a touchdown — Teagan also was second on the team in tackles with 66 (24 of them solo).

“Last year, on the headsets, the coaches would say he’s having an all-conference year or an all-area year or an all-state year,” Chris said. “As a parent, you’re like, ‘He’s doing great,’ and you’re proud of him. But you’re like, ‘Really?’”

The reason it was all so surreal for Chris was because a year prior Teagan was barely big enough to play on varsity — he was 5-10, 135 pounds soaking wet as a sophomore — and was third on the depth chart.

With Teagan’s path to playing time blocked, Chris and Teagan had a conversation and considered lobbying for the Columbus coaching staff to switch Teagan to a different position.

But when quarterback Connor Manthey went down with a season-ending injury in Week 3 of 2017, one of the players ahead of Teagan at safety was moved to be the signal caller and opportunity knocked for Teagan.

“We needed another guy in there and I was the next guy up,” said Teagan, who finished the game with just one tackle.

In just seven games that season, he finished second on the team with 44 tackles (18 solo) and also had one interception and one forced fumble.

It wasn’t his stats that gave him the confidence he needed to thrive in 2018, though — it was the experience he gained.

“I learned how to key in on what guys do and how to read a quarterback’s eyes from the way he faces,” Teagan said.

He was undersized in 2017 and said he learned a lot as he went along as far as how to use his smaller frame to his advantage.

But between his sophomore and junior year he put on 20 pounds and also hit a growth spurt, shooting up 4 inches.

No longer looking like he just walked from eighth grade right onto varsity, and with the experience gained from his baptism by fire in 2017 to boot, Teagan was ready to burst onto the scene in 2018.

“You could see the potential was there,” Chris said.

And Teagan delivered on it in a monster way, tying with one other player for the most regular season interceptions in the state. He would end up finishing in a four-way tie for second after two others got to 8 in the playoffs and one leapfrogged him by getting to 9.

Teagan knows it’s unlikely he’ll have as many interceptions this year, at least if teams cut the field in half and don’t throw his way a whole lot like he expects will happen.

That will be just fine with him so long as victories take their place.

“I would definitely rather go out with a winning season,” he said.

Follow Mark McMullen on Twitter @mmcmull2 or contact him at 920-356-6754.

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