All-Area Football: Schutz leads the Panthers' resurgence
It’s been a tough decade for Ellsworth football. The last time the Panthers posted a winning record was in 2006, a season that had as many combined victories as the season before and the season after.
Ellsworth has endured three winless seasons since 2002 and has posted five or fewer victories in every season from 2002-12, with 2006 excluded.
But this year, everything came together.
Head coach Clair Austin took a loaded senior class, led by Republican Eagle All-Area Player of the Year Dennis Schutz, and ran the table in the Middle Border Conference.
The Panthers came up one victory short of a trip to Madison and the WIAA Division 4 semifinals. But Ellsworth is back on the football map thanks in large part to Schutz and his all-around play-making abilities.
“He made the game look pretty easy this year,” Austin said of Schutz. “Like I always tell the kids, each year, as you get a little older, the game slows down. You see the field so much better. And he was such a weapon in everything we did, whether it was offense, defense or special teams.”
Schutz, a senior, came into the season with 325 career rushing yards. That’s not a number that would open the eyes of a defensive coordinator. But there’s not a coach in western Wisconsin that saw Schutz play this season that didn’t have a stunned look on his face.
Schutz rushed for 1,165 yards and 16 touchdowns, caught 21 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns, returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns and was 21 of 27 on PATs and 3 of 5 on field goals.
Oh, he also returned an interception for a touchdown, one of two picks he had, while totaling 45 tackles for a team that finished 8-0 in the MBC, and 11-1 overall.
“We had a really good year this year,” Schutz said. “At the beginning of the year, we … knew we could upset some teams. But we didn’t think we would go as far as we would. We knew we were strong, but as practice started going, we started to come together as a family and everything started clicking.”
The theme of family and togetherness was sprinkled throughout Schutz’s responses to interview questions. Teammates were always given credit, and Schutz downplayed his individual success.
That willingness to allow others to do their job so he could do his is something that Schutz learned during the offseason. And that growth was instrumental in his and the Panthers’ success.
“The comments were in years past that he was more of an individual,” Austin said. “This year, he became a total team player. He tried to carry the load too much at times last year. This year, he had a nice supporting cast. And when he needed to take over, he took over ball games for us.”
And take over Schutz did.
His rushing yards this season are good for fourth all time at EHS, and his 164 points scored are a school record.
Though if you ask Schutz, his name being in the record book is just shorthand for team.
“It was fun,” Schutz said. “Pretty much all the rushing was our line, they work so hard and they do everything for us. I give all the credit to them — and not just our line, (but also) our receivers for blocking, our running backs in front for blocking, quarterbacks for throwing, everybody. They knew what they had to do. They knew who they had to block. They knew where the ball had to be in order for us to win.”
Austin, who is in year 3 of a rebuilding effort, said Schutz will be impossible to replace next season, or, at least, will be with just one player.
But the lasting impact may not be the record book or the yards or the touchdowns. Instead, it was about an individual buying into the team, and going along for one of the longest, most exciting rides his school and community have seen in a long while.
“He was a total team player this year and very humble about what he did,” Austin said. “He was always about the team and what could help the team out the best. We would ask him to do things that you don’t expect, and he carried through on almost everything we asked him to do this year.”