CLARENCE, Iowa — Despite having his left hand wrapped in a cast, there's no way Caden Wendt is going to miss any time.
The North Cedar senior lineman broke that hand in last week's game against Cascade, but with the Knights in the midst of their most successful season in five years, Wendt wants to play as much as possible.
"I love playing football, and it's always fun, even if we lose," Wendt said. "I plan on playing."
Wendt has been a fixture on the North Cedar line for almost his entire career, making his first start three games into his freshman season. There have been plenty of challenges, compounded by three straight 1-8 seasons, but Wendt is seeing the fruits of his labor pay off as the Knights are 4-1 heading into this week's game against West Branch.
"It's real great," he said. "It makes us feel like all the work we put in the last four years is all paying off."
Wendt is looking forward to a full game against West Branch. Last year, he played the first half on a broken leg before finally tapping out and missing the last three games of the season.
So the broken hand is something he's willing to play through.
"(The broken leg) was terrible, and it almost made it even worse because I had to stand on the sidelines and watch (the final games) happen; all my teammates out there playing and I couldn't be out there," Wendt said. "It was a huge motivation because I remember all those games I had to watch and miss out on. It made me work harder over the summer getting ready."
Wendt has had to work hard since being thrust onto the offensive line as a center four years ago. It wasn't so much out of necessity as the coaching staff feeling Wendt was ready for the challenge of playing varsity football.
"He's the second freshman I've ever started on the varsity level," North Cedar head coach Adam Hadenfeldt said. "He was our best option where we felt like he was able to handle it physically but also mentally. He's a pretty bright guy."
Still, it was quite a big transition.
"I remember when that happened," Wendt said. "I was pretty nervous when I was going to start my first year, but now, I look back and I think it helped me more than anything because I realized how big a level difference there is between junior high and high school.
"Practice helps a lot, but there's nothing like the real deal."
Since his freshman season, Wendt has gained experience and size. He has put on 30 pounds, now at 6-foot, 280 and has added plenty of strength. After playing his freshman season at center, he moved out to guard and is now playing right tackle for the Knights.
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After not playing defense his first year, Wendt has played both ways for the past three years as well.
"I feel like I've gotten a lot stronger and lost some fat," Wendt said. "I wasn't near as strong then, and I can tell that now."
Besides his size and strength, Wendt has become even more fundamentally sound for North Cedar.
"His feet, he spends a lot of time on not just getting stronger, but getting quicker with his footwork," Hadenfeldt said. "I think his footwork has really cleaned up over the last year, year-and-a-half, and he's got really heavy hands.
"When he puts his hands on you, you feel it."
Wendt showed just how far he's come in a game earlier this season against Durant. Matched up all night on the Wildcats' 6-7, 340-pound Division I lineman Joe Lilienthal, Wendt held his own on both sides of the ball, helping the Knights earn a 24-22 win.
"He's been good every night out this year," Hadenfeldt said. "I think, that was maybe his most focused game. We told him earlier in the week 'We're going to double everyone else and let you go one-on-one with the big guy, because we know you can handle it. He really rose to and embraced that challenge, and it allowed us to do some things maybe some teams aren't always able to do."
Through five games this year, Wendt has helped North Cedar average over 300 yards per game on offense and is also fifth on the team with 19.5 tackles, including a team-high 10.5 tackles for loss.
His presence has also helped steady the Knights, who have several players who have seen time since they were sophomores, including quarterback Ethan Sahr.
"It's very valuable to know I have him over there and he's usually going to get the guy in front of him," Sahr said. "If anybody has a question, they just ask him and he knows whatever they're going to ask him."
Wendt hopes to continue playing after high school. He has interest from some Division II schools including Wayne State and Upper Iowa, and he's interested in Upper Iowa's agriculture program.
But right now, he's focused on Friday's game against the Bears.
"They're good," Wendt said. "They're always good, and we're looking forward to it. It should be a really fun game."