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Senior running back Nick Waldvogel fell into the end zone for a St. Thomas Academy touchdown in a recent game. Photo courtesy Claire Hoverson

Sometimes, the best way to learn is through a loss. The St. Thomas Academy football team sure hopes that's the case. Two Fridays ago, Mahtomedi upset the Class 5A second-ranked Cadets 20-13 in front of their home crowd. The defeat ended a 34-game regular-season winning streak.

Needless to say, it was an eye-opener. "It was definitely different," said senior running back Nick Waldvogel, who has played varsity since his sophomore year. "We've never really had a loss that hasn't ended the season."

Every season includes new Cadets who weren't part of that winning streak up until now, but they weren't the ones who wanted to end it. Coach Dave Ziebarth said he believes this is a surefire way to improve and evaluate every exposed area. It's just human nature.

"You look at the good stuff and the bad stuff; it's a lot easier to get their attention on the bad stuff when you have a loss to point to," Ziebarth said. "It's an opportunity now. Are you willing to look at the stuff you did poorly and learn from it and challenge yourselves? Hopefully we're going to do that."

This is the time to address and evaluate the team's weaknesses heading into the final leg of the regular season. Or as senior quarterback Keegan Zimprich called it, "re-dedicating" themselves to the team and getting better. It has grounded a team that was sitting pretty atop the Classic Suburban Conference with an unblemished record.

"Little bit of an ego check for the team," Zimprich said. "As much as I hate to lose, I think this is going to be good for us."

Waldvogel called it "one of the best things that can happen to us. There was an arrogance a little bit, and I think we shed that. We're getting back to what we're best at."

One of the Cadets' best assets is team speed. They are lightning fast everywhere on the football field. Ziebarth said they will have to utilize their speed if they are going to win, and they haven't quite played their full-speed card in recent weeks.

On offense, Zimprich improves every week under center. Running back Pat McFadden has rebounded nicely after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee last season. His power game complements the quick and shifty Waldvogel, who can make flashy plays rushing, receiving and returning kicks.

The Cadets lost a key offensive cog for the rest of the year when senior Alex Stevson broke his collar bone in three places during a kickoff return against Mahtomedi.

While Stevson will be missed, the Cadets contain strong depth in the backfield, which is typical of the St. Thomas Academy program. Carter Vanasek and Mario Bognanno are both capable backs.

"That's one of our big philosophies," Ziebarth said. "The odds of us having a kid who rushes for a thousand yards is pretty slim. Sometimes we'll have that, but we're going to have a lot of guys who are close to 600 yards apiece at the end of the year. And people have to worry about all three of them."

On defense, Parker Chapman, Jeremiah Kracker and Mack Marrin lead a tough, speedy and powerful unit. Wyatt Schmidt has been Mr. Automatic in the kicking game. Aside from being a strong outside linebacker, Schmidt has been launching field goals at will.

The Cadets will find out soon how their rare regular-season loss will affect the team. They play a final conference game against South St. Paul, a team they defeated nine consecutive times before a loss in last year's section playoffs.

Waldvogel knows what needs to happen.

"Coming together as a team is the only way we'll really make it deep into the playoffs and make one of those runs," he said.

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