Austan Pomajzl has only been a part of winning teams since he arrived on Wayne State’s campus.
That’s an accomplishment, considering the Wildcats’ recent football history.
Wayne State suffered 11 straight losing seasons from 1996 to 2006. But the Wildcats have had winning records every year since 2007, marking the first time in the program’s 97-year history that it’s had six consecutive winning seasons.
Pomajzl has been around since his redshirt year in 2009. And the 6-foot-1, 200-pound free safety has started every game he’s played as a Wildcat, helping them go 6-5, 7-4 and 6-5.
Winning seasons are OK. But what Pomajzl would like as a senior is to get Wayne State into the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time since 2008.
“I don’t want to get complacent with just the fact that we’ve had winning seasons,” he said. “You want to go in and win every game. That’s the goal.”
So how do the Wildcats make that jump from winning record to postseason berth?
“That’s the million dollar question right there,” said Dan McLaughlin, the coach who has orchestrated Wayne State’s reversal of fortune. “We feel like we’re right there. We’re excited about this year. We feel we have a chance to do it with these kids.”
McLaughlin, who led Millard West to a Class A state title in 2001, enters his ninth season as Wayne’s coach. He returns nine offensive and eight defensive starters from a team that opened last season 3-0 but was unable to win consecutive games the rest of the way. Three of the Wildcats’ five losses were by a touchdown or less, and the average margin of those five losses was 8.4 points.
“We need consistency. We’ve been really good at times and we’ve been really bad,” Pomajzl said. “We’ve lost games we shouldn’t have. If we’re more consistent, there’s no doubt we could be in the playoffs.”
Pomajzl, who set Grand Island Northwest’s school record for career all-purpose yardage, has been a consistent performer for the Wildcats, starting all 33 games.
After redshirting in 2009, Pomajzl was second on the team in tackles as a freshman and sophomore and then led the team with 96 tackles a year ago. He also picked off four of the team’s 10 interceptions.
If Pomajzl matches last season’s tackle total this fall, he’ll finish seventh on Wayne State’s career tackle list.
“Everyone always calls me the nerd of the defense since I make the calls,” said Pomajzl, a pre-med student. “But last year, I was more of a playmaker. I think I’ve gotten to the point where I can make the calls, get to the spot and make the plays.”
“He’s been our starting free safety since he walked in the door. He’s a great athlete,” McLaughlin said.
Wayne State did graduate an All-American on the defensive line in Richard Daniel, who had eight sacks last season. But McLaughlin likes the team speed that’s back on defense.
“We’re not the biggest team by any stretch of the imagination, but we have guys who can run to the ball,” he said.
Offensively, the Wildcats averaged 26.4 points per game last season and McLaughlin thinks it will be better this season.
“I think our offensive line is really good. Whenever that’s the case, you have a chance to be good everywhere,” said McLaughlin, who returns everyone on the line.
Running back Charlie Davidson, who was named the Northern Sun Conference offensive newcomer of the year last season, is back after rushing for 880 yards and seven touchdowns. He had three consecutive 100-yard games near the close of 2012.
Quarterbacks Nate Most and Brian Kent also are back after taking all the snaps last season. But McLaughlin said Zach Osborn, a redshirt freshman from Harlan, Iowa, won the starting quarterback job in the spring and entered fall camp at No. 1 on the depth chart.
Most and Kent combined to throw for 1,961 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, but they also had 17 interceptions. Ball security is a top priority for McLaughlin entering this season.
“We did a terrible job of taking care of the football. Turnovers just killed us,” McLaughlin said. “We were our own worst enemy. We had a much better team, I felt, than 6-5. The kids weren’t happy with 6-5. I know I wasn’t.”
The Wildcats will be looking to improve that 6-5 mark on a new playing surface. Wayne State began installing field turf on Aug. 14, part of the $1.3 million renovation project to Memorial Stadium.
The Wildcats had been one of four teams in the 16-team Northern Sun to play on natural grass before this season.