Mike Schmidt stood on the makeshift stage in the small parking lot adjacent to Veterans Memorial Field with a simple message to the gathering of parents, family, friends and players in that patch of concrete:
Keep the faith.
Schmidt, who addresses the crowd in a new tradition the Eagles have started this season, after each game and usually thanks them for attending. However, after Saturday’s 42-28 loss to No. 3 Oshkosh, he did his best to correct anyone who was thinking this season was destined to end like 2016.
“You are wrong, you are wrong, you are wrong,” Schmidt said, drawing cheers from the crowd.
UW-L (5-2, 2-2 WIAC) has lost two straight after starting the season 5-0. The team started 5-0 last season as well, but had a five-game skid to close out the year 5-5. Despite the loss Saturday, Schmidt continues to preach what he calls a “30,000 feet view” of the situation.
“If you’re going to say we have 500 yards of offense, we’re within a score off Oshkosh in the fourth quarter, with our backup quarterback, you’d be pretty happy about it,” Schmidt said. “Our guys feel good. We’re proud of how we’re playing.
“We’ve lost to two really good teams. We’re right there, we’ve just got to find the plays we need to make to win.”
Schmidt is known for his upbeat attitude and his enthusiasm. It’s what endears him to his players — he genuinely believes in them. That belief has permeated the roster, and while the losses cause frustration, the Eagles know how close they are to being a top-tier team.
“We are a really good team. We’ve just played really good teams, that’s our conference,” said senior receiver Nick Holcomb, who tied the program record with 15 catches on Saturday. “I like how we’ve played and we’ve battled.”
Nick Holcomb has three games remaining in his UW-La Crosse football career.
UW-L’s losses — on the road to perennial power Whitewater on a short week, and to the national runner-up Titans — have come by a combined 21 points. With another top-10 showdown slated for Saturday at No. 10 Platteville, the Eagles have another opportunity for a landmark win.
The key, they say, is fixing the mistakes that are costing them these close games.
“We still haven’t played our best football yet,” said senior safety Luke Winnen. “Everything ahead of us is up to us.”
Winnen has been one of the success stories of the Eagles year. Filling in for injured seniors Peter Kissling and Ryan Weber at times, Winnen has shown up in big spots. He made a hit to jar the ball from a receiver in the end zone Saturday, and finished with a team-best eight tackles.
Senior quarterback Tarek Yaeggi is week-to-week with a right shoulder injury, but junior Drew David has filled in admirably. He threw for 414 yards Saturday and doesn’t restrict what the Eagles do on offense like many teams’ second QB would.
“Every guy is always ready to play. That comes from the coaching staff,” David said. “Guys are ready to step in when their number’s called.”
Records of 8-2 or 7-3 are still in play for the Eagles — either of which would be the program’s best since 2006. So while the sting of two tough losses lingers, UW-L is keeping perspective on what it still has to play for.
“I believe in where we are as a team,” Holcomb said. “Those other teams better be ready, because we’re coming.”