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SUN PRAIRIE - Runners up in the division 1 state championship game a year ago, Sun Prairie was thought to be one of the handful of teams to be in the mix to make it back to the state championship game this November, as long as they could replace key components.
The Cardinals had to practically replace their entire offensive line, along with a smattering of other positions, but then were forced to deal with injuries, all of which head coach Brian Kaminski said put his team in some difficult spots during their first four wins of the season.
That would explain why the Cardinals won three of those games by eight points or less. To make matters even more challenging, Sun Prairie was heading into a daunting three game conference stretch, including back-to-back games against undefeated conference teams.
Fans of the program may have been worried, but not senior defensive tackle Craig Evans; quite the contrary in fact.
"I knew my team was young, young and raw, but I knew the potential of what we could be," said Evans, a day before playing Madison La Follette. "The feeling I feel toward this game I've never felt about no game in my whole four years of playing. I have a special feeling about this squad I never felt.
"If we play together and believe, it isn't going to be a close game. I study film and I know what my team can do. I feel like it's finally going to click. I am not cocky, but I am confident. I know what we can do, and it's time to do it."
Evans premonition was correct. Sun Prairie broke open a 20-12 game by scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter in a 40-20 blowout over Madison La Follette, a team that features Pittsburgh commit Marcus Collins at defensive back. Running for 335 yards and passing for 136, the Cardinals won their 16th straight game against a Big 8 opponent.
"Our kids expect to be good," said Kaminski. "We're going to continue to get better. We haven't played our best football yet. We haven't played a complete game. We're working there."
In the last year, few people have done more work than Evans. Emerging as a leader following a junior season where he felt overweight, unathletic and out of shape, Evans – a current commit to the University of Wisconsin –has trimming his weight over 20 pounds and seen a return to form.
"He's really seized that athleticism this year," said Kaminski. "Teams are double and triple teaming him this year, but he's able to get into the backfield and create some problems. That's really attributed to what he did this offseason."
In the win over the Lancers Friday, Evans made 10 tackles (six solos), including two tackles for loss, one fumble forced and one fumble recovered, in the win, making plays he admitted he probably wouldn't have made consistently last year.
Entering tonight's matchup at Madison Memorial (5-0), Evans has 38 tackles, seven tackles for loss and four sacks. He's also gets reps as the team's blocking tight end, clearing run lanes for a Sun Prairie offense averaging 32.2 points per game, and has contributed on special teams as a blocker or long snapper when needed.
"My team needs me more than I think they do," said Evans. "I've always been that player that doesn't think one player is going to dictate a team, especially in football. It just feels good when my teammates come up to me and tell me they need me in this spot or need me to make a play.
"I just want to be ready for anything. Whatever coach needs me for I am ready for. I'm going to do whatever my team needs me to do for us to be successful."
For a program that expects to win and has turned the adversity of winning close games to blowing out a good La Follette program, Evans sees Sun Prairie pushing for another shot at a state championship.
"Our younger guys haven't played together, but I feel like they are even tired of it," said Evans. "They look at film and go, ‘What are we doing? We are supposed to be crushing these teams.' It's starting to finally get to the point where guys believe we could be a great team.
"We've got guys that experienced that championship level. We've got guys coming back from that loss and it still eats at them. Those guys are captain of this team and shows leadership to the other players. We tell them how we felt and tell them to believe what the coaches are telling us."