MANKATO, Minn. — Everything is going well, Shane Zylstra wants everyone back home to know.
The New London-Spicer graduate is having a great senior season on the Minnesota State-Mankato football team. He’s on target to graduate in December and there is a realistic NFL opportunity after that.
Life is so good for the senior wide receiver, who has seen his career take off in Mankato, that he draws favorable comparisons to another former Maverick wide receiver: Adam Thielen of the Minnesota Vikings.
Another favorable comparison would be genetic: That would be his older brother Brandon Zylstra, who is playing special teams with the Carolina Panthers this season after having a similar role last season with the Vikings.
“It is going well,” Zylstra said. “Obviously, it (the pros) is in the back of my mind.”
It is indeed.
MSU-Mankato is 6-0 and ranked third in the nation in NCAA Division II. The Mavericks, who are host to Mary at 1 p.m. Saturday, are national title contenders and Zylstra is helping lead the way.
“We focus on the task week to week,” Zylstra said. “But, obviously it (a national championship) is on our minds.”
He is leading the Minnesota State with 32 receptions for 692 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 21.8 yards per catch. It’s the third straight season Zylstra has led the Mavericks in receiving after placing fourth on the team in receptions as a redshirt freshman.
The 2014 New London-Spicer graduate is putting everything he has into making this season as successful as possible. First, he wants to see his team do as well as possible. The Mavericks are scoring 34.2 points per game and allowing 8.8, making them a favorite to win the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championship. And, there’s the lure of pro ball.
But mostly, he wants you to know it hasn’t been easy. Yes, he’s physically gifted. Yes, he had a standout high school career with included three state playoff appearances at New London-Spicer, including standout careers in basketball and track and field.
But no, he just doesn’t show up, keep his head down in practice and work hard. It’s more than that. If he could tell high-school athletes something, that would be it.
“That’s a great question,” Zylstra said. “I’d tell them (high school athletes) that it is extremely difficult and that there is a lot more that goes on behind the scenes than you realize.
“You have a definite need for extra focus. It’s not like in high school where you think you’re the hardest worker on the team and that’s all you need. There’s so much more to it.”
Zylstra is 6-foot-5 and weighs 215 pounds. He says he is less than 10 pounds heavier than his senior year in high school. It’s enabled him to keep his speed while honing his craft.
At New London-Spicer, he set school records with 94 career catches and 1,531 receiving yards with 17 touchdowns. He also earned all-state honors in the long jump and high jump and was the leader of a state tournament basketball team his senior year.
At MSU-Mankato, all he has done is put up numbers. He caught 29 passes for 499 yards and seven touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2016.
As a sophomore, he received All-American honorable mention honors from D2Football.com after catching 51 passes for 861 yards and 15 TDs. Minnesota State went 13-1, losing in the national semifinals to No. 8 Texas A&M-Commerce, 31-21.
It was more of the same as a junior. The Mavericks went 13-1 again, losing to second-ranked Ferris State 52-25, again in the national semifinals. Zylstra had 66 receptions for 1,261 yards and 14 TDs, earning NSIC All-Academic Team and CoSIDA Academic All-American team honors and super regional accolades. The 1,261 yards is a single-season Minnesota State record.
After two straight long playoff runs, the Mavericks seemed poised for a third. Their signature win so far ia 52-7 victory Oct. 5 over Minnesota-Duluth at Blakeslee Stadium in Mankato. Noteworthy is that UMD was ranked 12th in the nation at the time and is perennially one of the NSIC’s toughest teams.
“A lot of people saw it in the news clippings and was wondering what was going on,” Zylstra said. “Honestly, it’s what we expected to do as a program.”
Why’d it happen? “I think it was executing really well defensively. And, it was the first game we really clicked and came together as an offense.”
Zylstra is a biology major, which is a prerequisite to get into physician’s assistant school. He’ll graduate in December, which means his schedule is cleared for pro football tryout camps and the NFL combine.
“That’s exactly my plan, to graduate in the fall and have the spring wide open to try to train for that,” Zylstra said.
Like his brother, he’s considered a potential pro despite being from a small school. Brandon Zylstra made the Vikings last season after a standout career at Division III Concordia College in Moorhead. The two worked out a bit over the summer, though not regularly.
“We always get together a few times,” said Zylstra, who added that he talked to Brandon just as he and the Carolina Panthers were leaving for a game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London. “(They work out) Just every once in a while. We run some routes, that sort of thing.”
A younger brother, Jaden Zylstra, is a current NLS football player. He is a junior tight end who has helped the Wildcats to a fourth seed and first-round home game in the Section 6AAA playoffs. New London-Spicer (5-3) is host to No. 5 Melrose (4-4) at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
What might you not know about the Zylstras? They are a big water-skiing family. Father Vonn and mom Marcia have made it a family thing over the years. And it goes back further than that.
“That’s a very big part of our life growing up,” Zylstra said. “My dad and grandpa (Gary) were big into water skiing. It was something we could do as a family on Green Lake.”
What he’d really like to do is start a family tradition of Zylstras in the pros. He said he has met Thielen, the former Minnesota State-Mankato star and Detroit Lakes graduate, visiting with him after games last season with his brother.
“I’ve talked to him a few times after games,” Zylstra said. “We’ve talked about getting together in the off-season. We’ll see what happens.”