McFarland junior Zach Gunderson worked to get tougher during the offseason. Why? Because he knows the Spartans' path to what would be a repeat Rock Valley Conference title will be a week-to-week battle.
McFarland coach Paul Ackley has many starting offensive positions to fill this season, but on the defensive side of the ball, things seem a little more stable. The stellar defensive line, comprised of Gunderson and seniors Connor Frasier and Xavier Schreiber, all return after earning all-conference recognition in 2018.
Gunderson could be considered the best player on the Spartans' team — though not the largest. He's listed at 5-foot-7 and 155 pounds and yet is a standout defensive tackle, earning first-team All-Rock Valley honors as a sophomore.
“Not a big guy, right?" Ackley said. "Well, he has a wrestling mentality and is coached extremely well by our defensive line coach.”
Gunderson had 47 tackles last year, five for loss, along with three sacks. Numbers aside, his ability to cause havoc in the middle disrupted many an opponent's drive.
His teammates and coaches attribute most of Gunderson's success to his wrestling background. As fellow defensive lineman Frasier put it: "He’s just a freak out there, for how little he is and he’s tossing around these big linemen. He’s really strong.”
Ackley said that while Gunderson is “a phenomenal wrestler,” but more importantly is “a great young man.
"We feel very comfortable with a guy in the middle you’re not going to be able to block all the time.”
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The play of Gunderson and the rest of the defensive line was the highlight of the Spartans' 2018 season, and a key reason why they emerged from what was expected to be a tight Rock Valley race. A lot of the success can be attributed to new defensive line coach Ryan Rothwell, a McFarland graduate and former NCAA Division II All-American at Winona State.
When reflecting on the turnaround from a 2-7 season in 2017 to an undefeated regular season in 2018, Gunderson said “we really focused on technique that Coach Rothwell showed us. He’s a very good technician (and) shows us a lot of different moves.”
“We changed our culture a lot," Gunderson said. "Instead of just focusing on winning, we focused on a lot of the little things that lead to that goal of winning. Every day we’d focus on how we’d block or how we’d disengage from a block. It was all about doing those tiny things that add up to the big thing.”
Another key member of McFarland’s stellar defensive line Frasier. Standout senior receiver Nic Hall thinks Frasier will be one of the Spartans' pivotal players this year after earning All-Rock Valley first-team honors last year.
“Connor is a quiet giant," Ackley said of Frasier, who also plays running back. "He not’s a giant, but he plays like a giant."
McFarland must be ready from the start, as the Spartans open the season Aug. 23 against Edgerton, last year's league runner-up. It might be McFarland's toughest test of the regular season.
A hint to the Spartans' approach: When asked for an overview of McFarland's title hopes, Ackley was quick to say: "(Edgerton) is our focus right now. I’m not looking down the road.”