Trio Of Veterans Lead Crusaders Under Center

Mark Tolzien

By Dan Karpuc
Special to

A field general is a term that refers to a quarterback who is able to consistently and quickly assess the situation in front of him and make smart decisions and plays to advance his team down the field. To become a so-called field general, countless time and an immense amount of effort and determination must be put forth. Experience creates confidence, and confidence, in turn, produces positive results. Most college teams are lucky to have one or two quarterbacks at that level. This year, Holy Cross has three senior quarterbacks, all of whom head coach Tom Gilmore think can step in at any time and effectively lead the team if need be.

It was not long ago that Dominic Randolph was taking the ball from center for the Crusaders. A three-time Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year, Randolph broke every major Holy Cross passing record. Seniors Ryan Taggart, Mark Tolzien and Kevin Watson were among Randolph's backups, and undoubtedly were positively impacted by the tutelage and leadership he displayed.

"Taggert, Tolzien and Watson are not only great players, but they each bring different attributes and intangibles to the field," Randolph said of the three current seniors. "They are very competitive and up to the challenge of leading the team to a championship season."

With three senior quarterbacks on the roster, competition was inevitable in the preseason. Gilmore noted that all three of them are players that have improved steadily over the course of their careers, and that all three did well on the field last season when given the opportunity.

Taggart had a solid night in the season-opener against UMass, accounting for 261 yards of total offense and two touchdowns. Last season, playing through injury, he started all 11 games and completed 185 of 317 passes for 1,899 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Taggart also ranked second on the team in rushing with 284 yards and five touchdowns on 85 carries. A star for Trinity High School in Bedford, Texas, Taggart has been used to winning, as his high school team posted a 36-5 record during his career, winning a state championship along the way.

Here at Holy Cross, he was part of the 2009 Patriot League championship team. Therefore, last season's 6-5 record was a disappointment to him.

"The 2010 season was disappointing in my eyes just from an offensive production standpoint," Taggart said. "We never reached our potential and never showed how good of a team we really had. We were maybe a dozen plays away from going 8-3 instead of 6-5."

He expects to make major strides and improvements this season. "I believe my play individually was mediocre and that I could have performed at a higher level. But one of the many things that being a quarterback teaches you is how to learn, build and grow."

He mentioned that he, Tolzien, and Watson have done the learning, building and growing since last season that is necessary to have a strong quarterback unit.

"We know what last season was, where we failed and where we succeeded," Taggart said. "We have carried that over through the months and built upon that as individuals and as a unit."

Taggart is confident that the work the team put in during the offseason will pay off, but knows that a number of challenges lie ahead.

"The toughest part remains where we must transfer it to the game field. We will be tested physically, mentally and emotionally more than any other time I can remember."

Tolzien, who was named co-captain this summer, commented on the benefits of having a competitive situation during the preseason.

"I think it forced us to be on our game each and every day in everything, whether it be meetings, practice, or life, you have to prove that you are the guy," Tolzien said. "From a work ethic standpoint, it made each one of us better and overall it helped the team improve. But at the same time, on the field, you can't worry about the competition. You have to work to improve each day on your own game and forget about the other quarterbacks on the field.

"In saying that, it really was a friendly competition because we all simply want to win. We all help each other out because we want to succeed. We obviously all want to be the starter but at the end of the day whoever it is that is helping us win games, we are going to support and do whatever we can to help them out."

But, he noted that they all possess a common goal. "Whether you ask me or the other quarterbacks, we all share the common goal to win a Patriot League title. As seniors, we have all worked so hard to go out as champions. When we all decided to come to Holy Cross, I know that's what we all hoped to accomplish."

Tolzien was a standout talent in high school for coach Mike Donatucci at Fremd High School in Palatine, Ill. He earned All-State honors, going 178 of 273 for 2,123 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior, and was rated as the No. 34 quarterback in the nation by ESPN / Scouts Inc. During his high school career, his team posted a 39-4 mark with four consecutive conference championships.

At Holy Cross, he has appeared in backup roles and has been impressive in limited action, completing 16 of 25 passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns.

He attributes his success in large part of being able to look up to his brother Scott, who was the starting quarterback at Wisconsin as a junior and senior and has been a role model for Mark.

"My brother basically taught me everything I know at the quarterback position," Tolzien said. "Because we are only two years apart, I was fortunate enough to sit back and watch him through the positives and negatives. I really feel like it has been a huge advantage for me as a quarterback that I could learn from his mistakes and emulate him. Growing up we shared a room together, and in high school I replaced him as the starter after he graduated."

Scott also affected Mark's work ethic. "Every day I would follow him around, and I learned very quickly trying to keep up with him the true meaning of work ethic. It has always been for me, 'How would Scott handle this situation'. In a way it was like I had a 'How to Play Quarterback' manual at my disposal having him as my older brother."

Scott's determination at Wisconsin inspired Mark to not let up here at Holy Cross. Scott sat his first three seasons at Wisconsin, redshirting his junior year and being named the number three quarterback. With hard work and determination he was able to make a good enough impression to gain the starting spot the following year.

"This spoke volumes to me as I've gone through a similar situation here," Mark said. "More than anything he has really taught me that if you don't like the position you are in, do not complain, but be confident in your ability and work harder than anyone else and good things will come."

Being able to see his brother play in the Rose Bowl and in the NFL preseason as a member of the San Diego Chargers has done nothing but bolstered Mark's confidence even more.

Watson played in the first seven games of 2011 as Taggart's backup, going 42 of 74 for 375 yards and a pair of touchdowns before missing the rest of the season due to injury. Watson also was a star in high school, setting school single-season and career records for both passing yards and touchdown passes. During his senior year, he passed for 2,039 yards and 21 touchdowns, while rushing for 223 yards and seven scores.

Watson reflected on the quarterback competition in the preseason, saying, "The quarterback situation definitely brought competition which always brings out the best in people. We all always have to work hard knowing that there's competition."

Overall, Taggart feels the remainder of the 2011 season looks promising for the Crusaders. "We have the talent, skill, and ability to win any game we want," he said. "None of them will be easy and some will be uphill battles, but we are capable and wise enough to make it happen. Now we just have to do it."

Gilmore knows he is fortunate to have three senior quarterbacks. "The quarterback position is such a crucial position for the team and having three experienced senior quarterbacks is a luxury that I've never had before," he said. "All three of them are great guys, hard workers, dedicated and have a lot of respect from their teammates because of the way they conduct themselves.

"All three quarterbacks have the experience under their belts to have a great season," Gilmore continued. "You could see in the preseason that they were better equipped to play this year, and I think it will produce some really good results for us."

This story originally appeared in the September 10 edition of the Holy Cross Game Day Program, for the contest between the Crusaders and Colgate. To order a copy of the program, click here.