The Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) has long been dominated by four schools: St. Thomas, St. John’s, Bethel, and Concordia. It has been a stranglehold that has seen some other teams make waves for stretches of time but, inevitably, the four powerhouses soon resume their place as the standard bearers of the conference.
However, an upstart school that hasn’t had a winning record in almost two decades is looking to change that. Hamline University has started out the season 4-1 and, entering their toughest part of the schedule, they are looking to change the course of the school’s football program, thanks in large part to a group of talented seniors led by defensive back Zach Schwalbach.
Sports Was a Family Tradition
It is not surprising that Zach Schwalbach would love the sport of football. Sports were something that the family, as a whole, spent a lot of time doing, and so joining this particular sport seemed like it was a perfectly natural fit.
“Sports was always a huge thing in our family. Growing up I would see mom and dad in some sort of sport activity. A lot of times it was just throwing around the football.”
In the second grade, Zach got his first taste of the organized game when he joined a flag football team. That set a pathway of him desiring to get out on the field as often as he could. He loved the sport as well as playing baseball and basketball, but realized that if he was going to continue to play a sport in college that football was his most likely option.
“Basketball was my favorite sport, but I realized I didn’t have a jumpshot. So, college basketball was out as an option. Baseball I could hit, but couldn’t field. I also didn’t really love the sport; just loved the friends. I loved the atmosphere, but just got bored out there. I needed a sport where I was involved in every play. When I started out as catcher that was perfect, but once they moved me to third base it was just too boring getting four balls hit to me a game.”
Football may not have been his favorite sport, but Zach was performing well on the gridiron. He played both wide receiver and defensive back but liked the feeling on defense much better. It was more to his liking and he found that each year he was exclusively playing defense by season’s end.
“In high school, I played limited offensive reps, but I would always go to camp starting out the season playing wide receiver. We actually had a super complicated offense in high school, and I didn’t take the time to learn it. I took the time to learn our defense, and by my senior year I was the one calling the plays on defense. I’m out of the field calling our plays. Tackling people always seemed more natural. It was reaction based as opposed to performance. That’s what drove me to it.”
His reactions proved to be quite good. In his senior season, Zach recorded 24-tackles in 7-games and picked off three passes. He helped the team to the section playoffs where they lost in the first round, but he performed well in the hard fought affair.
Finding the Right Fit
His play on the field and his success in the classroom brought a lot of interest from colleges and universities. Zach Schwalbach had the choice of attending some very prestigious schools, but he narrowed his choices to a few.
The first two options were an interesting bipolar weather situation. Zach really wanted to go to Hawaii, but his parents were not too keen on the idea of paying $800 every time their son wanted to come home. He also looked at going to school in Duluth, MN, but the thought of having to use the tunnels to get to class six months out of the year to avoid frostbite left a chilly impression on him.
This left Zach with two primary options: Hamline and Luther. His brother was already attending the Iowa school, and many thought it would be natural that he would go there as well, but his visit to Hamline really made the selection an easy one.
“A lot will tell you about their college story and how they found the right feel. That’s exactly what happened. It wasn’t like I didn’t like Luther. I just knew when I was at Hamline that I was at the right spot. I’m from a small town, so the big city was neat to me. I came here, parked my car across the street and walked across Snelling. Big street, cars flying by, and I crossed Snelling and get onto the campus. When you enter Hamline it’s like you leave the big city and enter kind of a small town for the University. I thought that was so cool. To be in the big city but not really feel like it. It kind of met all of the things I wanted in a school.”
Knowing Exactly What They Were Getting Into
Zach Schwalbach would start his academic and athletic career at Hamline in the fall of 2013. The Pipers were coming off a 1-9 season and were undergoing a coaching change as Chad Rogosheske was named the team’s new head coach and Chip Taylor, the team’s current head coach, became their defensive coordinator.
The challenge to turn the program around was a daunting one for sure. Not only had they won just one-game the season before Zach arrived but had won just two in the prior three seasons. It was at that time that he made a commitment to want something better for the school that he was going to be calling home for the next four years.
“Anthony Hill, who is another one of our defensive backs, and I talk about how when we came here we wanted to help to re-right the ship. It has been a down time at Hamline for so long, and we wanted to be the class that helped to make a difference. There were 40 of us that were freshman when we started and now there are around 20 of us that are left. We want people to look at the 2016 season and see that this was the year when things really turned around.”
That may have been the objective for Zach, but his first season was a major struggle. The team went 2-8, which was an impressive feat considering it took them three seasons to attain that many victories prior to the new coach arriving. However, Zach admits that he struggled mightily his first year on the team.
“I had a lot of missed tackles my freshman year. I was a freshman who played out of necessity for the team because there really wasn’t another guy to put in.”
In nine-games Zach made 28 tackles. It was not an awe-inducing start, but still a solid one for the freshman. The next season those numbers would improve mightily. Zach finished second on the team with 71-tackles and had 2-interceptions as well. It was a great season but, he admits, his teammates were still a little leery.
“Sophomore year was my best year stats wise. I knew I was playing well but I think people were afraid that I could kind of switch back to how it was the previous year; that I could be super bad again at any moment.”
Zach did not regress in anyway in his junior season. He still finished second on the team in tackles (59), but a shoulder injury had limited his ability to practice entering the season, and so it took a little bit of time before he was at full speed. The junior still made 2-interceptions and teamed with Hill to make one of the most dominant secondaries in the MIAC.
This season Zach is having another outstanding season. He is tied for first in tackles through five games (37) and already has 4-interceptions. He is just five away from Chris Nylund’s 1993 record and, while not really interested in individual achievements, he would like to have that record.
“That would be cool. I am not as interested in individual achievements but that would be a record I would like to hold.”
Judged by Content of His Character
In his famous speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It is the content of the character of Zach Schwalbach that really makes him stand out.
While the senior has shown to be an outstanding football player and has led the team to one victory away from having their first non-losing season since another Clinton was president, it is the manner in which he conducts himself that really makes him stand out. Zach is as friendly as any person you will meet, describing himself as a “chatterbox kind of guy.” He always has a smile on his face and is a man that Head Coach Chip Taylor calls “one of the most likeable young men you will ever meet.”
As a senior he is embracing the expectation of leadership and uses his natural talents to help to improve the play of his teammates. It is easy to see that his helping the younger players to grow to become better players on the field and even better men off is a role that he is loving even more than picking off a pass or making a bone crushing tackle.
“As a senior, I know that there are responsibilities that come with that and I want to help our team to be the best that they have seen here in some time. We all need to be working toward the same goal here to make that happen. It’s much easier to get things done if you know that the team is all working towards the same thing. If I know what our team is working for and I can vocalize that that I will. That’s something I’ve been doing this year. Sometimes you got to draw something out of someone.”
This has also meant doing all he can to help his new head coach. Chip Taylor took over as the Pipers head coach this season, but still holds the position of defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. With so many hats to wear on the field and a ton of new administrative responsibilities, the coach’s time is at a premium, and so Zach has made it part of his responsibility to help direct the defense.
“Anthony Hill and I both realize that coach Taylor does have a lot going on this year. There are times where we feel like calling out or instructing the defenses. Coach Taylor is the head coach, the defensive coordinator, and the defensive backs coach, so there are a lot of times where we will hold guys after meetings and talk to guys because he really doesn’t have the time to do that anymore because he has so many other things to do.”
It is a responsibility that he is embracing not only because of his position as a senior, but also because Coach Taylor has become one of the people that he has come to admire most.
“He’s a head coach and is like 38. That’s pretty good, pretty quick to the top for him. He’s kind of been a father figure for me here on campus. You’re far away from home and he’s one of those guys you can come to. I kind of model how I treat people off of him. He’s one of those guys who believes that if you treat people nice that good things will happen. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
It is not just being older and his sense of duty that makes Zach such a good leader. He has also been able to take his struggles that he had as a freshman and use them as a teaching tool to help the younger players learn.
“I can literally see the things that I was doing wrong; I can see them doing them wrong. That’s why I can go up to them and be able to help them. My biggest issue freshman year was I never brought my feet to tackles, I always stopped my feet, so I would either get run over or missed the tackle. You can see that and break it down to the little things. It’s one of those things that I try to explain to them that if they take the coaching it will work. They teach you how to tackle. It’s when you don’t do what they tell you that’s when you’re going to miss.”
The most interested part of the senior is that when one thinks of safeties in football the names that come to mind are Ed Reed, Cam Chancellor, and Ronnie Lott. Players that seemed like they would drop the hammer on their own child at a father-son game. Zach’s character is not an angry one. He is actually a very kind-hearted guy with a real positive spirit. This requires him to take on a new persona when he crosses the lines.
“I’m not a mean person, I’m not an angry person. But when you play this game you kind of have to be. It. They talk about that it can’t be a switch that you can just flip, but it kind of has to be. You can’t go out there playing nice, because the whole point of the game is to run my body at full speed to knock you to the ground.”
The Future Looks to Be a Bright One
The Hamline Pipers are 4-1, the best start the team has had in nearly two decades and they already equaled the number of wins that they had in each of the last two seasons. The 14-wins the team has over the last four seasons is the best four-year period since the 1990s. With the way that the team is progressing Hamline University won’t be saying that their last football conference title was 1998 for long.
Players like Zach Schwalbach have helped to turn this team around. They are men who have taken their talent, intellect, and commitment and used them to lay the seeds for what will likely be a Pipers football program that will making noise in the MIAC for many years to come.
It is a bitter-sweet season for Zach, because he has helped to make this a program that is on the verge of success not seen in three decades, but it will also be his last season lacing up the cleats. He will head out into the world looking to start the next chapter of his life. Being the amazing young man that he is there is no doubt that the title of that chapter will be “How I Became a Success and Had Fun Doing So.”
By Robert Pannier