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Prep football: Trojan football 'just feels right'

WORTHINGTON -- Gene Lais, first-year head coach of the Worthington Trojans varsity football team, cherishes teamwork and selflessness. So, too, do the Trojans. That, says Lais, is probably the key ingredient in the Trojans' 3-1 start to the 2016 ...

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Doug Wolter/Daily Globe Worthington High School seniors (from left) Eli Gaul, Shawn Hurley, Vince Riley and Easton Sauerbrei are showing this year what team spirit can do on a football field.

WORTHINGTON -- Gene Lais, first-year head coach of the Worthington Trojans varsity football team, cherishes teamwork and selflessness.

So, too, do the Trojans.

That, says Lais, is probably the key ingredient in the Trojans’ 3-1 start to the 2016 season.

“I know it’s kinda boring …” Lais admitted while relaxing before practice in the football fieldhouse this week.

Perhaps. But boring is good, if you’re headed in the right direction.

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After starting the season with a 20-6 loss to Luverne, the Trojans have beaten St. Peter 35-22, Albert Lea 23-9 and Tri-City United 27-6. Lais points to senior leadership -- and team camaraderie inspired by the seniors who have welcomed every team member into one big, happy family. The players have no discernible jealousies, nobody needs to be the hero. They work together as a unit, Lais states proudly. They enjoy each other on the field and off the field.

“It just feels right. It feels natural. There’s not a lot of big egos on this team,” said senior linebacker/backup quarterback Vince Riley, who competed with junior Logan Huisman for the starting QB position in pre-season practice.

Huisman won the job, but Riley’s reaction was typical of this year’s Trojan roster, Lais recalled.

“He just said, ‘That’s good. Let’s go out and win,’” said the coach.

Practice is fun Of course, it’s easy to be happy and selfless when you’re winning. But another one of those senior leaders, running back Eli Gaul, says it goes deeper than that.

“Lots of chemistry is what we have. I think it’s because we’ve been together for so long,” Gaul said. “This year I love playing football. I love being at practice. I love every aspect of football now.

“And we don’t stress out very much. We go out and just have fun, because stressing never helps. When something bad happens, we try to figure out something to change it.”

Case in point: Last week’s game against Tri-City United. The Titans broke a scoreless tie early in the first quarter on a pick-six interception return. No problem. Worthington scored 27 straight points, shutting out the Titans the rest of the way. WHS trailed St. Peter 15-6 before bouncing back, and trailed Albert Lea 6-0 at the end of the first quarter.

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Shawn Hurley, a senior wide receiver, said it’s one for all, all for one on the 2016 squad, but the players engage in “friendly competition, making us better.” The seniors have been well aware that the program has waded through several losing seasons in recent years, so they want to set a winning tone for the future.

“We’re trying to change the Trojan way,” Hurley said. “If we keep up a winning season, more people will want to come out and play.”

And besides that, added senior back Easton Sauerbrei, “The seniors want to go out with a bang.”

Lais explains that the three senior captains -- Riley, Hurley and Sauerbrei -- are quiet types. Sauerbrei and Riley just want to go out and do their jobs. Hurley? “You almost have to MAKE him talk,” the coach chuckles. The team’s junior captain, Tyler Linder, is probably the most vocal player among the four.

“But even he is pretty quiet,” Lais says.

The Trojans, then, are living proof that you don’t have to be heavily into the rah-rah-rah mentality to win football games.

Apart from that, Lais fairly gushes about the players’ generous personalities. Not a single player, he said, said he wanted to play this or that position, but only where he was needed.

“On this team, you have to earn your position,” said Sauerbrei. “Just because you’re a senior doesn’t mean you’re going to start. So everybody helps each other out so we can compete.”

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Everybody has a role Lais, a former Trojan player, former Worthington Community College player and longtime coach at the local college before taking over at WHS, fondly remembers two of his old coaches who taught him the benefits of selfless, team-oriented play.

This season, he said, makes him think back to his high school campaign of 1984 and Coach Denny Hale. It was the year Lais was a junior and the senior-dominated Trojans lost to Hutchinson in the state semifinals.

“Coach Hale did such a great job of treating people right. Even juniors like us who didn’t get to play very much. He kept us all involved and made us feel important. Everybody had a role.”

As a Bluejay, Lais played for Don Varpness.

“Varp always told us he loved us. You kind of laugh at him, but after a while you know what it means,” he said.

Lais says this year’s Trojans know what friendship means. It’s on display when a teammate makes a great catch or a great defensive stop and everybody celebrates. So far, the celebrations have been spread around; every week there’s been a new star.

“You think back on all those years, and the teams that are successful are the ones that do that. They don’t care who gets the credit,” Lais went on about his “boring” Trojans. “And they hang out together off the field. And they’re genuine friends. We’ve had parents tell us they see kids at their house who they’d never seen there before.”

Of course, it remains to be seen how long Worthington can keep its winning streak going. On Friday, the Trojans host an undefeated Marshall team that has been all four of its opponents by 36 points or more.

Still, the Trojans are a confident bunch, and they believe they’re getting better with every game.

“I honestly think if we’d played St. Peter first, we’d still be an undefeated team,” said Gaul. “We know Luverne’s a good team, but we’ve gotten better since then.”

“I think it was just our first game together,” chimed in Hurley. “We were just getting used to it. And now it just feels right.”

Doug Wolter joined the Worthington Globe in December of 1983 as a sports reporter. He later became sports editor, and then news editor and managing editor. In 2006 he moved to Mankato with his wife, Sandy, and served as an editor at the Mankato Free Press. In 2013 he and Sandy returned to Worthington to take up the job of sports editor at The Globe, and they have been in Worthington since.

Doug can be reached at dwolter@dglobe.com.
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