Hunter Schulke has come back strong.
The Verndale junior, who sat out the last two seasons due to injuries, recorded his best game of the season rushing for 216 yards and four touchdowns in the Pirates 28-20 win over Rothsay last week.
“I had decent blockers for all the runs I had,” Schulke said. “What I saw was that I could get to the line with all them blocking and they were missing tackles. That’s why I was able to have a big game.”
Despite the big game, Schulke’s night did not get off to a good start.
“He started the game with a fumble,” Verndale head coach Mike Mahlen said. “From there it was nothing but uphill. He really ran hard and had a heck of a game for us playing both ways.”
The four touchdowns are what surprised Schulke the most.
“It felt great to get into the end zone like that,” he said. “Because I was not expecting to be able to do that.”
Schulke’s number was called more often due to the injuries the Pirates have had in the backfield this season.
“We lost our two top running backs early,” Mahlen said. “It is very important that Hunter steps up and he did.”
Schulke himself has dealt with injuries. His freshman year was cut short due to a torn ACL and his sophomore season saw him sidelined with a broken ankle on the same leg.
“They both happened at the beginning of the season,” Schulke said. “It was really cool for me to have a big game without getting hurt.”
Schulke has impressed Mahlen with his mental fortitude to come back from two injuries like he has.
“It takes a lot of guts to come back from an injury like that,” Mahlen said. “He could’ve easily said ‘that’s enough and I’m done with football’ but he’s worked his butt off.”
The injuries caused Schulke to wonder whether he would ever run the ball again. After rehabbing for the ankle injury he told Mahlen that he might just want to play defense his junior year.
“I told him that’s fine,” Mahlen said. “If you want to come out and play defense then that’s what we’ll do. He got to ease into it a little bit because of the other backs. If we came out in the first game of the year and gave him the ball 39 times I don’t think it would’ve turned out as well.”
Schulke still felt prepared when he walked on the field for the first time in 2020.
“The rehabs have made me stronger and just watching the film from all our games,” Schulke said. “All the coaches really helped me through that stuff. It was tough in the beginning, but I started to get it back.”
Schulke said it took until the second game of this year to mentally forget about his previous injuries and just play football.
“I try not to think about it,” he said. “Our second game I just quit thinking about it. First game I was a little scared to touch the ball, but after touching the ball a little bit it got rid of all the butterflies.”
Mahlen added: “Mentally you have to overcome those injuries more than physically. It’s the mental part that any player has trouble with.”
The support from Mahlen and his teammates has meant a lot to Schulke.
“It was more than I could’ve thought of,” Schulke said. “Just to get the support from all my teammates and all that.”
Mahlen called Schulke a quiet, more reserved person off the field. On the field, he’s become a key two-way player for Verndale. Mahlen said Schulke only weighs 160 pounds, but plays middle linebacker for the Pirates. He tallied 10 tackles in the win over Rothsay.
“He’s not a bruising type running back,” Mahlen said. “He hits the holes well and is pretty shifty. He runs hard. He’s running full speed all the time.
“You hardly ever hear him say ‘boo.’ At practice, you don’t even really know he’s there. He’s just doing his job and doesn’t say much of anything. He’s a very quiet kid and very humble.”
The Pirates found themselves down 12-0 after the first quarter against Rothsay before
Schulke scored two touchdowns in the second and one in the third to give Verndale the lead. His last touchdown came in the fourth quarter with 3:19 remaining.
Mahlen thinks it’s a luxury to have Schulke as a third-string running back step up like he did.
“We are fortunate enough to have at a small school three running backs,” Mahlen said. “Most years at Verndale if I can have one or two good running backs we are really fortunate. It’s worked out for us this year.”
Schulke hopes to build off his big performance as Verndale continues into the playoffs.
“Just give it my all,” he said. “See where that takes us.”
Other notable performances:
Football: Michael Leidenfrost, Pierz, scored all five touchdowns for the Pioneers while rushing for 139 yards.
Josh Dykhoff, Wadena-Deer Creek, caught five passes for 84 yards and three touchdowns.
Owen Miller, Aitkin, rushed for 158 yards and scored two touchdowns.
Carter Sjoblad, Pequot Lakes, rushed for two touchdowns.
CONRAD ENGSTROM may be reached at 218-855-5861 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/the_rad34.
Position: Running back and linebacker
Highlights: He rushed for 216 yards and scored four touchdowns in a 28-20 win over Rothsay.