By Frank Rajkowski, SJU Writer/Video Producer
COLLEGEVILLE, MINNESOTA—HOW Alex Larson and his teammates from the Saint John’s University football team begin spring training, remembering where they’ve been and how far they still want to go.
“Everyone wears armbands that say ‘second round bust,'” said Larson, a 6-foot-7, two-time All America tight end who will return next fall to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility that granted to all student-athletes by the NCAA as a result of the impact of COVID-19.
“We’ve done some great things the last two seasons, but we lost both years in the second round (the NCAA Division III playoffs). We know we have the talent on this team to go above and beyond which is a huge motivator for us this offseason. We don’t want to allow that to happen again.”
The Johnnies are certainly returning the talent to strive for even higher heights. All in all head coach Gary Fasching ’81 expects to see 16 of 22 starters return from a team that finished 2022 10-2, won its fourth straight MIAC title and advanced to the Division III postseason for a program record for the eighth straight year.
But SJU is tested early. The Johnnies open the 2023 season by hosting Trinity (Texas) in a game scheduled for noon on September 2 at Clemens Stadium. The Tigers finished 11-1 a year ago and finished the season 6th nationally in D3football.com’s final Top 25 poll.
Then SJU — which ended the year at No. 7 — travels to Wisconsin-Whitewater for its second non-conference game, scheduled for September 9 at 1:00 p.m. have a new head coach in former assistant and All-America linebacker Jace Rindahl.
The Johnnies follow suit by opening the MIAC game with an interdivisional matchup against Bethel on September 23 at 1 p.m. in Collegeville. SJU has beaten the Royals in the conference title game for the past two years, but Bethel finished last season 10-3, reached the Division III quarterfinals and finished the year ranked 5th nationally.
Fasching therefore knows that spring training is an important part of the preparation in order to be able to start training for the 2023 season in August.
Under MIAC rules, teams are allowed to complete a total of 16 drills over a five-week period. The Johnnies, who held their first two training sessions last Monday and Wednesday mornings, plan to train three times a week through April.
“We always use the spring as an evaluation period,” said Fasching, who is entering his eleventh season as head coach this fall with a career record of 91:17 (0.843). “Even though what we can do is kind of limited, there are still a number of things that can be made of it. It’s a chance to see how far the guys coming back have progressed in the offseason in terms of strength and conditioning. And it’s also a chance to work on different things that we feel we need to improve on.
“One of our priorities this spring is improving our running game. We have to get better at that and we’ll be working on that a lot over the next few weeks.”
Since many players are also active in spring sports, not everyone will be present at every training session. But Larson said there’s still a good chance of bringing the majority of the team together.
“As players we want to take every opportunity to improve,” he said. “And that’s what spring is all about. It’s another chance to get out with your teammates and get some work done before everyone comes back in the fall.”
The Johnnies have added several transfers over term break, each attending spring training.
• Eli Olson, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound offensive lineman who started three seasons at Mankato East High School before joining Minnesota-Duluth Division II where he spent last season.
• Joey Moberg, a 5-10, 200-pound wide receiver from St. Paul Johnson who has spent the last two seasons with FCS Sacred Heart (Conn.).
• Cooper Downs, a 6-3, 205-pound quarterback who was with SJU in 2020 and 2021 but switched to Division III Central (Iowa) last season.
“Spring is a good opportunity to get these guys up to speed and it’s also important to give some of our younger players a chance to lead our stuff,” Fasching said. “A lot of them were on the scout team, so they didn’t have a lot of opportunities to do that all season.”
Overall, Larson said spring training is a chance to continue to build the team’s unity and ensure everyone is on the same page heading into the summer.
“The biggest thing is making sure everyone gets shopped,” said Larson, who led the team with 14 touchdown catches a year ago. “When everyone is shopped and on the same page, that’s special.
“Spring training is a great opportunity to get everyone focused on getting back to action next fall.”