COZAD — Cozad football coach Brian Cargill blew his whistle at the end of a 3 1/2-hour, mid-August practice.
All that was left to do was stretch. The first Cargill called for was a hamstring stretch. For most, it was an opportunity to lay on their backs and catch their breath after a morning full of drills and conditioning.
For running back Jake Paulsen, it was essential.
He can’t risk another pulled hamstring. He can’t have a repeat of the state track meet that saw him come up limping halfway through defending his 100-meter dash title.
Paulsen is nearly back to 100 percent after his left hamstring weighed him down all track season. The All-State tailback knows that he can’t overlook stretching if he wants to get Cozad over the hump in his senior season.
“It’s really important,” he said. “All summer, Cargill would stretch with me after weight lifting for about 20 minutes. I’m so unflexible that he’d be working up a sweat. That just shows how dedicated he is to getting me back and healthy.”
Cargill, who is in his first year as head coach after serving as an assistant, understands how critical Paulsen is to Cozad’s senior-dominated squad. He racked up 1,393 rushing yards and scored 19 touchdowns in addition to leading the Hub Territory with three kickoff returns for touchdowns. On top of that, Paulsen anchored a Cozad secondary that helped lead the Haymakers to a 6-3 campaign.
Paulsen has made a habit of breaking off big runs behind an offensive line he grew up with. Jacob Stallbaumer, Simon Rangel, Tanner Evertson and Dallas Maack all return to an offensive line that is used to paving the way for Paulsen.
“I’m just really comfortable behind them,” Paulsen said of the offensive line. “I’ve been running behind them since freshman year and I think now we’ve got more chemistry than ever. We’ll be ready to go.”
They’re also used to playing for Cargill, who coached this group of seniors when they were freshmen on the JV squad.
There are certain benefits that come with blocking for a guy that runs a 4.46 second 40-yard dash.
“For (Paulsen), it’s probably almost like looking at a third person because he can see guys coming from different angles,” Stallbaumber said. “We make our hole and he takes off.”
Breakaway speed has never been a concern for Paulsen. The four-sport standout admitted, however, that getting to his second gear has been tougher than ever.
His hamstring didn’t bother him this summer playing legion baseball. The only time he had issues with it was during track season. He’s never missed a football game in his life and hopes that streak will continue through his senior season.
If Paulsen is unable to go, Cozad still has plenty of offensive weapons. All-District quarterback Nate Bubak will lead a team that returns 10 starters on each side of the ball. Senior receiver/linebacker Jacob Rush and senior fullback/linebacker Alex Boryca also received All-District honors on a squad that believes it has the experience to make the next step.
“We talk about not sacrificing the gift. The Lord sends down an opportunity, you’ve got to get out there and take advantage of it because it doesn’t happen often,” Cargill said. “This is an opportunity for us to do some special things.”
Last season ended after Gothenburg pitched a 23-0 shutout on Cozad in the opening round of the C1 playoffs. This group of seniors has never won a playoff game. The last time the Haymakers made it past the first round was in 2007 when they made it to the C1 semifinals.
A more mature approach, they said, is the key to ending that drought.
“Yeah, it’s big,” Stallbaumer said about getting past the first round. “We’ll be alright as long as we don’t overlook anybody. I think last year we were already jumping the gun and thinking about the games after and we got knocked off. We’ve got to take it a game at a time and not think that we’re world beaters yet.”
The time is now for Paulsen and a Cozad squad that is set on tasting playoff success for the first time.
The football season is hardly Paulsen’s athletic swan song, though. He still has basketball season, a track season with gold medals to add and his favorite sport, baseball, next summer. He’s received Division I track interest from schools such as Nebraska, Florida State, Mizzou and Iowa State.
Before he can do any of that, though, Paulsen has a priority list he’d like to take care of in his final football season — keep his hamstring healthy, join the exclusive club of 2,000-yard rushers at Cozad and most importantly, lead this group of Haymakers to places they’ve never been.
“This is the year for Cozad,” he said.