ALEDO — Observing his players go through agility exercises during practice on Wednesday afternoon, Mercer County football coach Nat Zunkel pointed out his team was loose and having fun.|
Zunkel actually prefers that kind of atmosphere.
"It's been effective for us," Zunkel said. "Bottom line is this should be fun and rewarding. If it's not, then we're not doing the right things."
From the outside, the sky should be falling on the Golden Eagles after a season-opening 28-0 loss to Elmwood-Brimfield last Friday. Fun and rewards should not come from a defeat, especially on their home field.
Mercer County does not operate that way.
"With the kids we have on the team, we take (losing) with a grain of salt," Mercer County senior lineman Dalton Howard said. "It's not as big of a deal as some people would think. We take the criticism pretty well and we bounce back.
"We're working to get better."
Since Aledo and Westmer consolidated to form Mercer County prior to the 2009 season, the program entered the season with eight losses in 61 games. Never had the Golden Eagles lost their season opener. Not once had they suffered a larger margin of defeat at George Pratt Memorial Field.
All those streaks ended in a game Mercer County felt was defined by missed opportunities. Add those up, it was its ninth loss in six seasons.
How did the Golden Eagles handle the defeat? They refused to be concerned about it.
"We do what we do," Zunkel said. "We wake up the next day and go to work. We have to get better. That's what our focus has been."
The loss meant Mercer County has been shut out in back-to-back games dating back to a 14-0 setback against Sterling Newman in last fall's Class 2A state semifinal. The Golden Eagles have dropped consecutive regular-season games for the first time ever.
Given that information, there was no alarm. Mercer County wanted to get back to practice and start having fun.
"Most of the kids on the team got past it pretty quick," Howard said.
Examining the film and realizing part of the loss came from their own undoing helped the Golden Eagles get re-energized and refocused. The goal is moving forward, not dwelling on one game.
"Everyone has been pretty good about moving on," Howard said. "At practice this week, you wouldn't be able to tell that we lost 28-0 in our first game. Everyone still is up and going as hard as we can."
Rather than blow things up, Mercer County is keeping the status quo.
"This is a talented group of kids," Zunkel said. " ... We didn't perform. We're accepting the fact that we were our own worst enemy and learning from it."
Those wanting to see fireworks on the practice field would not find them. A program that has experienced countless success in its history was not humbled or humiliated by a 28-point loss. Practice was about getting better, having fun and preparing for Farmington.
Losing never is fun, but this group is not allowing it to consume them.
"We understand that we have enough talent, enough hard-working kids here that we can bounce back from anything," Howard said. "One loss isn't going to make or break a season, especially the first game of the year."
Contact prep sports reporter Daniel Makarewicz at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter: @danmak57
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