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Prep football photo: McFarland quarterback Derek Schwarting talks with teammates

McFarland senior quarterback Derek Schwarting, left, talks with teammates during a break in the Spartans' football practice on Wednesday, Aug. 1.

It didn't take long for new McFarland quarterback Derek Schwarting to grow comfortable in his position.

In his first game as a starter for the Spartans, last year's season opener against East Troy, the then-junior threw for 330 yards and five touchdowns on 23 for 45 passing in a 47-42 loss. The game provided a capsule of what the 2017 season would be like for McFarland: a lot of close losses and impressive performances from the new guy under center.

Flash forward to 2018, and expectations are higher for the Spartans, who finished 2-7 a year ago but suffered three losses by six or fewer points. Turn some of those in-game decisions around, and the Spartans might have qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

But there was enough success and encouraging signs to give McFarland high hopes of competing for an upper-division finish in the Rock Valley Conference. Schwarting hopes to build on a junior season that saw him throw for 1,663 yards and 17 touchdowns. He will lead an offense that returns all five of its offensive linemen.

"We've got something special going on," said Schwarting, one of the state's quarterbacks to watch, according to WisSports.net. "We feel confident, we've been working hard, and feel that a conference championship isn't out of reach at all. We want to win a playoff game. We can compete with any team in our conference and we proved that last year."

The seeds of this year's hopeful emergence were established with the first-year starter Schwarting at the helm. The 6-foot, 155-pounder showed leadership qualities during his season serving as the backup for senior Brady Wedvick in 2016, and those qualities were confirmed during camp of his junior season, as his teammates voted him a team captain even though he had never started a game.

"We do a player vote, and Coach (Paul) Ackley said that he didn't care what class the captains came from, as long as they were good leaders," Schwarting said. "Having my teammates vote me in meant a lot, knowing they have my back, and gave me a lot of confidence."

Schwarting has also won the confidence of his coach through his diligent film study and commitment to getting better. Ackley described Schwarting as a student of the game and a devoted player willing to do whatever it takes to improve.

"There are more mobile quarterbacks than Derek in the Rock Valley, but Derek's accuracy and knowledge of a defense is something that's a benefit to him and to the team," Ackley said. "I would say he's mobile enough to get out and go when he has to, but I also feel his strength is being accurate in the pocket. We'll get him out on a bootleg, come off a play action and do a little sprint out, but his accuracy is his strong suit."

With five more experienced blockers in front of him, Schwarting is looking to improve upon a promising junior season, and perhaps add another component to his arsenal.

"I would consider myself more of a pocket passer, but we have five offensive linemen returning who have put in their fair share of work in the weight room. We're looking for the running game to be there, and I'm hoping to be more of a runner, too."

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