Martin Luther thinking big

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Josh Arndt gets a block from a teammate in attempting to convert a third-and-long. (Martin Luther athletics photo)
Josh Arndt has taken an average number of receptions a whole lot of distance for Martin Luther, as he has 3.5 catches per game, but averages 24.6 yards per reception.
Martin Luther athletics photo

By Joe Sager

Building a winning college football program isn’t easy, but it’s certainly rewarding.

At Martin Luther College, fourth-year head coach Mark Stein and his staff and players are definitely smiling at 7-1 and in contention for the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference championship.

That’s a far cry from the 2-8 mark in 2015 and a winless (0-10) 2016 in Stein’s first two years.

“It’s been really enjoyable to be part of the growing process,” he said. “When I took over three and a half years ago, we ended the year with 28 guys. The four seniors on the team right now were part of that first group. My second year, we had a big recruiting class, but went 0-10. I tell people all the time that our best practices that year came in Weeks 8, 9 and 10 – that’s when I knew it was going to start to get better.”

The Knights showed flashes last year when they finished 5-5. They took a big leap forward this fall.

“It’s been nice seeing the steps we’ve taken,” Martin Luther senior receiver Josh Arndt said. “Year after year, the coaches have been instilling the same mindset – it doesn’t matter how we win, we just want to win as a team. We need to be consistent in our progress and do whatever it takes to win.”

That’s a solid blueprint for a winning program. However, it’s a little more complicated at Martin Luther, which is the primary college for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. It offers several degree programs, all of which train its 868 students for service in the Wisconsin Synod. Nearly all of its 763 undergraduates (717 full-time in the school's latest Department of Education filing) hail from the 23 WELS-affiliated high schools around the country.

“The key with any program is laying a good foundation. Our foundation is always rooted in faith.

Recruiting has been a huge part of our success. Every one of our guys is training to go into the ministry,” Stein said. “We get those people from all walks of faith and life. They happen to be good football players, too.

Small, but growing

Martin Luther's school is small and its roster is small. Only seven Division III schools with football programs have fewer full-time undergraduates. Here's a look at Martin Luther's roster size at the beginning of the preseason from each of the past five years, starting the year before Mark Stein took over as head coach.

Year Players
2014 48
2015 53
2016 55
2017 65
2018 70

“We’ll never have 100 players at a time. We don’t recruit that way. We’ll be in the 70s and 80s. Our goal is to have between 15-20 seniors each year. I think we’ll have that. It’s been a neat process to be a part of because these kids work hard and they’re still so young. We’re still in the player development phase now. When we can get the bulk of the team to be 21 or 22 years old, that’ll make a big difference.”

For the Knights, it’s about quality and not quantity.

“The guys in my class came from a lot of winning high schools,” said Arndt, who attended Saint Croix Lutheran Academy, a Minnesota power. “Knowing what we’re capable of and seeing all the young guys buy in, it’s great to see.”

Arndt helped Martin Luther pick up its seventh win in a row last Saturday. He caught four passes for a program-record 222 yards and three touchdowns. While Arndt tied the program’s career record for touchdown receptions (25), the Knights don’t air out the ball all the time.

“I try not to look at all the numbers most of the time, but there was one game where we ran it 78 times,” Arndt said. “Our coaches, they get a game plan set each week and we stick to it. It doesn’t matter who gets the numbers. We just want to win and we’re having fun doing it.”

“We’re known for primarily running the ball. When the run isn’t there, we can go deep, too,” Martin Luther sophomore quarterback Zach Bloomquist said. “That’s a testament to our offense. We have multiple options to different people; we can be dangerous with the run game and the long ball.”

At 2,107 yards, Martin Luther leads the UMAC in rushing by a wide margin. The team is in the middle of the pack with 1,596 passing yards.

“We make a lot of young mistakes, but we’ve found different ways to win. We have a lot of tools in our bag, but they’re just awful young,” Stein said. “On offense, we just take what teams give us. We run the ball when it’s there and throw it when it’s there.”

The Knights opened some eyes this year with a 49-21 win over St. Scholastica. It was a turning point for Martin Luther, which rallied from a 21-7 deficit in the second quarter for 42 unanswered points.

“You totally notice there is a different kind of mindset this year,” Bloomquist said. “Last year, we were a bunch of freshmen and sophomores trying to figure things out. This year, we turned the corner and everyone is focused and the attention to detail is better.”

The next week, the Knights went down, 21-7, to Iowa Wesleyan with 8:56 to play. However, they rallied for three touchdowns and a 28-21 triumph.

“Last year, we’d get down early and I wouldn’t say that we’d fold; we’d play hard, but not be able to compete,” Bloomquist said. “This year, you can see that, if we get down, we have the will to keep playing and playing hard, no matter what the score is.”

Martin Luther faces its toughest test Saturday against MacMurray (6-1). It’s essentially the UMAC title game as both teams are 6-0 in the conference with two games to go.

“We have a tough assignment with MacMurray,” Stein said. “Statistically, MacMurray has the best defensive in the league. They are fast and physical. We’ll try to take what they give us. Right now, they’re not giving people a whole bunch of stuff, though.

“MacMurray really drilled us the last four years. They are tops in our conference for a reason. We can’t worry about anyone else, though. We have to take care of ourselves and take care of all the little details. I honestly don’t think we’ve played our best game yet.”

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