With six wins into the 2017 season, the Sioux City Stampede is treading on familiar territory.

The team, like last year, is undefeated, following last weekend’s 52-20 victory against the Omaha Stockmen. Coupled with the clutch 21-19 win against the Kansas City Bulldogs in late June, the Stampede secured the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Football Alliance (MFA) standings.

Making it to the MFA championship game is almost certain at this point. Judging by the team’s current performance, there’s a good chance they could pull off the win. But that’s a month away and the season isn’t quite over yet.

Last year, the Stampede was in a similar situation. The team, undefeated at the time, was pitted against Kansas City in the championship game and fell short. The team was missing two of its best players at the time – wide receiver Bret Van Muyden and defensive end Derek Geddings were both out due to injury, the latter was also named the MFA MVP in 2016.

The 28-20 loss against Kansas City served as a wake-up call for the Stampede. Instead of making excuses and lingering on past mistakes, the team is looking onward and remembering the Stampede culture that was instilled into each player by the coaches and ownership; a culture that motivates team values like discipline and brotherhood.

“A team that can face adversity and not get down on each other,” said quarterback Scott Manley. “We have a core group of leaders all the way from the top down to the bottom. And it really keeps this train rolling.”

The leaders – the “studs” of the Stampede – are just a few of the key components needed to ensure the team’s success.

Each player fills a role. While the team is certainly made up of individuals, its mentality and motives are focused and collected like a herd of wild beasts. They move as one continuous force, demolishing everything in their path.

“We’re actually a team,” said right guard Jameel “Juice” Cunningham. “We pick each other up and work to make each other better. If we messed up on a play, then we’re going to correct it and come back harder.

“Instead of getting down on each other or playing for stats, we play to win the game – each individual aspect of the game.”

ONE GAME AT A TIME

After the win against Omaha, the Stampede has a bye week to recover and prepare for the July 22 home game against the Midwest Titans. It’s unclear if the thought of last year’s championship loss is weighing heavy on the players’ minds as a constant reminder of what-could-have-been. But one thing is for sure: the team wants another shot.

That competitive drive propels the team forward, and it’s something every player has felt for years playing high school and college football. By the time they’ve reached a semi-pro league, it’s become instinct. The Stampede thrives in finding players that share a passion for the game of football.

Tyler Phelan is in his third year playing for the Stampede, having previously played for the now defunct Iowa Sharks. The 31-year-old linebacker and defensive end said the competition is one of the reasons he keeps playing, another being the players he shares a field with.

“We all want to play at a high level and enjoy it,” he said.

As players come and go each year, apprehensions are sure to arise.

“I think at the beginning of the year we had a lot of question marks, especially coming off the championship run last year where we fell short,” said Phelan. “How do you revamp and how does the team mold and change? How are we going to come back? How do you replace those guys [that left the team]?

“Right now we’re trying to achieve those goals. We got a lot of guys that are stepping up to the plate and performing very, very well. And hopefully we can keep that at a high level.”

LEADING AS A UNIT

Players like quarterback Scott Manley, who had one of the best games in his semi-pro career against Omaha last weekend, come to mind Manley threw 318 yards for six touchdowns and became the Stampede’s all-time passing yards leader. He’s also narrowly leading the league in passing yards, beating Midwest Titans’ Jake Heller by eight yards.

But even after upping his stat game, Manley is still critical of the team’s performance against Omaha, calling it “far from our best.” The 22-year-old is one of five captains on the Stampede (Manley, Mike Trobaugh, Bryce Drager, Jameel Cunningham and Tyler Phelan) and is always looking for ways to improve the team’s offense. He said his first two years as a backup quarterback for the Stampede “paid big dividends” for himself and his play.

“I think the biggest thing I was taking in was getting a speed for the game,” said Manley, who previously played football throughout high school in South Sioux City and Morningside College for one season. “At the semi-pro level, the speed of the game is a little quicker than what I was used to. I was able to digest and get used to that.”

It was a trial of patience as Manley spent most of his time observing the game from the sidelines. The love of the game kept him involved to press on. And he loves the difficulty that comes with his position.

“I love the challenge,” he said. “There are so many different dimensions in playing the quarterback position. You gotta do everything on your own, make the reads, throw the right ball, read defenses, escape the pressure – everything like that. I love it.”

Naturally competitive, Manley’s biggest motivator at the moment is winning a championship. With the core group of players returning from last year, Manley said the current roster is “one of the most talented teams” the Stampede has had since the team was created four years ago. As a quarterback, Manley is inherently called upon to be a leader. He thrives in the role, as do many of his teammates.

“We’ve built a brotherhood,” he said. “We’re a really close-knit football team that enjoys being around each other outside of the football field. We’re all friends and we enjoy each other’s company and we enjoy competing together. It’s a little bigger than football at times.”

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Weekender reporter

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