MAYVILLE, Wis.— By late October, high school football teams often say they want to play each game like it’s their last, because for seniors, it just might be. Nick Zitlow can be proud win or lose this postseason, because finishing his football career with his Mayville teammates seemed like a long shot last spring.

Friday in Hartland, Nick’s mother Jodi Zitlow watched nervously as her son took the field at Lake Country Lutheran, the top-ranked team in Division 5. Like every senior football parent, she was unsure if it would be the last time she would see her son play.

“I want him to just enjoy his time and enjoy his senior year,” Jodi said. “He’s happy. He’s happy he’s with his friends, and that’s all I can ask for.”

Nick has played since fourth grade, and he’s never taken a season for granted. When he was a week old, his family learned he was born with a ventricular septal defect, a moderate-sized hole in his heart, plus a bicuspid aortic valve, which can make it more difficult for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body.

All his life, Nick has made trips to UW Children’s Hospital in Madison for cardiac exams, and doctors usually sent him home with an OK to keep playing football and baseball.

Things changed last December, when Nick’s blood pressure dropped suddenly while he walked on a treadmill. His heart wasn’t pumping enough blood.

“I could tell the tech was getting a little nervous, asking him more questions about how he was feeling,” Jodi said. “I knew that things were deteriorating at this point.”

Doctors diagnosed Nick with aortic stenosis, narrowing of the body’s largest and most important artery. Further tests showed signs his heart was leaking. Reviewing his options, Nick and his family decided the best option for his long-term health was to undergo open-heart surgery.

“I knew I would have to get it at some point in my life,” Nick said. “I was definitely nervous, but I was prepared for it.”

The morning of his surgery in March, five teammates drove more than an hour from Mayville to show support before he went to the hospital. It would be an all-day operation known as the Ross procedure, in which doctors replaced Nick’s aortic valve with his pulmonary valve.

He knew he would have a long road to recovery, and overcame several complications before he was cleared to go home. Nick lost 20 pounds over 12 days in the hospital.

Determined to resume his junior year as soon as possible, Nick was back in school within three weeks. Friends carried his bags while he followed a five-pound lift restriction after surgery. Classmates embraced his return, even voting him prom king.

Nick had to watch as the Mayville football team posted an impressive 5-2 record in the alternate spring season. Slowly ramping up physical activity, Nick started with a few paintball outings before returning to the diamond for legion baseball in June.

As the new school year approached, his follow-up appointments went well, and Nick was allowed to rejoin his football teammates at practice. He suited up for the first time in the Cardinals’ Sept. 17 win over Omro.

“It means a lot to have him here,” Mayville head coach Scott Hilber said. “It means a lot to have him at practice every single day and doing what he can to contribute to this team.”

Nick has played mostly on special teams, covering on kickoffs and blocking for field goals and extra points. The Cardinals went 6-2 in the regular season, earning a share of the Flyway Conference title. Nick said getting back on the sideline with his teammates already felt like a huge accomplishment.

“It’s amazing,” Nick said. “I wasn’t 100% sure I’d be able to come back. I just really hoped and I worked, and it was amazing to come back.”

This special season reached new heights Friday. Mayville pulled off a stunning upset on the road, eliminating unbeaten Lake Country Lutheran 55-47.

“I knew we were going to come really far,” Nick said. “I knew this was going to be a very tough opponent. This is amazing, a great feeling.”

Mayville won its only state championship 27 years ago. The Cardinals are three wins away from another. But for Nick, finishing his football career on his own terms is the ultimate victory.