FAIRMONT — Mat Mahoney’s 15th season at the Fairmont football program’s helm consisted of a number of impressive milestones — the 100th victory of his coaching career on Sept. 17, 2021; the South Central White District championship; and a fifth Class AAA state appearance.
But Mahoney and his Cardinal players felt a bit empty on the heels of a 21-6 state quarterfinal loss to Dassel-Cokato last Nov. 13 on the turf at Prior Lake.
“I think we all feel like we’ve got some unfinished business to take care of this season, and the guys have been in the weight room ever since, getting prepared for returning to the field this fall. Now it’s here, and it’s time to keep the dream going,” said Mahoney, who enters his 16th season with a 106-48 overall record for a stellar winning percentage of .688.
Ironically, Fairmont captured runner-up accolades during Mahoney’s first-ever state appearance in 2011 at the now-defunct Metrodome in Minneapolis before garnering second place for a second time in the 2018 Prep Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Cardinals also netted state berths in 2013, 2017 and last fall.
“We graduated a couple of record-setting players in Zach Jorgensen and Eli Anderson from last year’s team, and you simply can’t replace guys like that, but we’re not starting from scratch either,” said Mahoney. “We’ve got two solid receivers (David Maakestad and Levi Pooley), two running backs in Johnson and Johnson (James and Elijah) and two good quarterbacks (Brendan Schmidtke and Blaze Geiger) returning to our offensive backfield.
“Our (offensive) line is bigger and stronger, with a lot of experience back. All five (Sawyer Tordsen, Gavin Junkermeier, David Barrientos, Jacob Singleton and Gunner Wells) at one time or another played significant time for us last season, and they’re all very versatile.”
Fairmont generated an impressive 3,711 total yards of offense in 2021, with 2,428 coming through the air and the remaining 1,283 on the ground.
“We became a little heavier on the passing side than in the past, so we’re working on balancing out those numbers a little better this season to make us more difficult to defend for opposing teams,” said Mahoney.
Schmidtke, a 6-foot, 155-pound senior, connected on 26 of 36 passes for a staggering 406 yards and eight touchdowns, while the 6-1, 170-pound Geiger completed 5 of 6 throws for 62 yards and one score during his sophomore campaign.
“At the end of the day, both (Schmidtke and Geiger) have done good jobs under center for us,” said Mahoney. “We won’t know any separation until the lights get bright on Friday nights.”
Mahoney and offensive coordinator Brian Wille made one pivotal change to the Cardinals’ offensive backfield since 2021, and opponents will take notice.
“We decided to move Hank (Artz) to fullback so he can lead-block and help our line create more running chances for us,” Mahoney said in reference to his 6-1, 230-pound third-year starter, who earned postseason honors as both an offensive and defensive lineman last autumn. “He’s an athlete who gives us a diverse skills set.”
James Johnson returns to a running back spot after finishing second on the Cardinals with 415 yards and one TD on 90 carries, and will rotate with younger sibling Elijah Johnson and speedy senior Landen Meyerdirk this fall.
Mahoney, however, still plans to utilize his two quarterbacks’ passing skills, with Maakestad and Pooley returning after turning in solid statistics a year ago. Maakestad finished No. 2 with 25 catches for 414 yards and three TDs, while Pooley hauled in a dozen tosses for 242 yards and four scores.
“Put Nolan Schultze, Brock Lutterman, Cooper Steuber and Jace Teveldal into the mix at split end and we’ve got six reliable receivers we can go to at any time,” said Mahoney.
The 6-7, 283-pound Tordsen, who’s being recruited by a growing number of colleges including Minnesota State University-Mankato, will return to left offensive tackle and be flanked by returning starter Barrientos at guard. Junkermeier will fill his right guard role, with Singleton at tackle and Wells handling the snapping duties. Junior Ethan Geerdes rounds out the starting line at tight end, with reserves Reece Buntjer and Cole Wiemers providing blocking depth in the trenches.
Flip the field and defensive coordinator Brad Johnson returns quickness and strength in the front seven positions of his 5-2 base alignment, but will have to rebuild around Maakestad in the secondary this fall.
Artz, a quick-twitch rusher, and Gage Cyphers will handle the end spots, while Tordsen and Junkermeier return to the tackle positions in flanking 6-5, 295-pound senior nose guard Jamie Mueller.
Parker Mathiason, Tyson Thate and Josiah Brockenhoff also will get reps in the frontline rotation, giving Johnson more skilled depth to apply pressure onto opposing offenses.
“We’ll have some flexibility in our defensive line this season, and that should allow us to jump to different sets without having to sub out,” said Mahoney.
The sure-handed Aden Welcome is back at linebacker, and will be joined by Elijah Johnson and sophomore Caleb Chambers, while Maakestad returns to anchor the secondary.
Mahoney expects to utilize the speed of James Johnson and Landen Meyerdirk at the safety positions, with Cooper Steuber and Brock Lutterman seeing time at the other cornerback spot. Pooley, Connor Gronewald and Mathew Cone will add depth to the defensive backfield.
Maakestad will handle both the kickoff and punting duties again, while Owen Burmeister returns as the Cardinals’ placekicker and extra-points specialist. Burmeister made 38 of 45 PATs last season, while Maakestad unleashed nine of Fairmont’s 22 punts for a 34.0-yard average.
Fairmont will get used to hitting the highways for the first half of the eight-game regular-season schedule, opening at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall at 7 p.m. Friday night before traveling to Floyd B. Johnson Field in St. Peter on Saturday, Sept. 10, for a 1 p.m. kickoff.
The Cardinals play host to Jordan in Week 3 before making the trip to Waseca during Week 4. Fairmont faces New Ulm for Homecoming on Friday, Sept. 30, travels to Worthington during Game 6, plays host to Luverne in Week 7 and closes the regular season by hosting rival Blue Earth Area on Wednesday, Oct. 19, at Mahoney Field in Fairmont.
“It’s a tough schedule to open with, but it’s not how you start the season, but how you finish,” said Mahoney.
Mahoney anticipates Waseca being one of the top rivals during the Section 3AAA playoffs this fall due to its strong tradition and outstanding coaching staff.
Dave Shoen, Shawn Chambers, Terry Ehlert, Brent Schultze, Eli Redenius and Jesse Walters will round out Mahoney’s coaching staff along the sideline and in the booth this season.