By Brian Kalish
October 25, 2019
WAUSAU– The sky is gray and there’s a sharp wind blowing over Balliet Field behind Newman Catholic High School where the football team has assembled for practice. The Cardinals are on the north end of the field in red jerseys and white helmets with “NC” lettering in powder blue on either side.
Coach Paul Michlig wears a black pullover and stands near the sideline, barking orders.
“Again!” He yells. “Up to the line.”
The offensive players hustle up to the line. This time a running play to the left is called. Quarterback Ben Bates takes the snap and hands it off. The ball carrier is tagged by the defense after a nice gain and the play is over.
There’s no break, no time for self congratulation, no time for rest.
“Up to the line!”
This time it’s a pass play down the right sideline.
Next, a pass play across the middle.
Within a span of a couple of minutes, the offense has marched the entire length of the field and put the ball in the end zone.
This portion of practice, large group offense, is designed to get 15 to 20 plays in about 10 minutes to simulate the type of tempo the Cardinals would like to impose on their opponents.
This week, Newman will be facing Marion/Tigerton in Level 1 of the WIAA 8-player tournament, and from the looks of it, the Mustangs may want to leave their football cleats at home and bring track shoes to Stiehm Stadium instead.
“We do that every day,” Michlig said of the large group session. “We want to set the tone. We feel like our offense is pretty good and it’s even better when you’re in a rhythm. We want to be up-tempo and fast, that’s what we’re trying to do, and so far it’s worked out for us.”
Saying that Newman’s offense has been “pretty good” this year is a little bit like saying that Giannis Antetokounmpo is an okay basketball player.
Just look at the numbers.
In the regular season, the Cardinals went 9-0 and averaged more than 47 points per game. On four separate occasions Newman eclipsed the 50-point mark, including a 59-14 shellacking of Saint Mary Catholic on Sept. 20.
In their regular season finale on Oct. 18 against Belmont, Newman piled up 600 yards of total offense, the second time they accomplished that feat.
The success Newman has experienced in 2019 wasn’t unexpected.
Since joining the 8-player format in 2017, the Cardinals have gone 30-1, with Sevastopol dealing Newman its only loss last year in Level 2 of the WIAA playoffs.
“We felt like we had a lot coming back offensively,” Michlig said. “We felt like we were going to be a pretty good offense. It starts with the quarterback play. When you’ve got a quarterback who is the real deal, you can do a lot of different things.”
Michlig is referencing senior signal-caller Ben Bates. Bates’ ability was on display right from the get-go in 2019. He threw for 304 yards in three touchdowns in a blowout win against Oakfield in the season opener and followed that up with 292 yards and five touchdowns in Week 2 against McDonell Central.
Then adversity made an ugly appearance in Week 3 against Algoma.
“We had three touchdowns right away against Algoma (in Week 3),” Bates said. “We were rocking and rolling. But then I took a helmet to my fibula and broke it. That was a setback for sure.”
Losing Bates’ athletic ability — not to mention his leadership — for an extended period of time was a blow to the team. It would have been easy for cracks to form in the foundation of the Cardinals’ offensive juggernaut.
But instead of hanging their heads or taking their foot off the gas pedal, Newman rallied behind junior Dylan Ackermann.
Ackermann played some quarterback in middle school and on JV, but his varsity resume did not include even one snap at quarterback.
He never flinched.
“I just had to slide in for that one game,” Ackermann said. “And then throughout that next week, just work on my mechanics in practice.”
Teams expecting some kind of drop off in production were in for a rude awakening.
Ackermann helped lead the Cardinals to a 4-0 record; Newman’s offense didn’t skip a beat.
“With each snap, I got more comfortable,” Ackermann said. “Our offense is great. Thomas Bates, Ben’s brother, is in there at running back. He’s a great runner. He runs hard. Our wide receivers, Charlie McCarty doesn’t drop many balls and Nick Renner is great too. And our line is one of the best in the state.”
“When Dylan came in at quarterback, we just all really supported each other,” said Newman senior Joe Stephan. “We did what we had to do. We focused during practice and we tried to do as much right as we could, and it paid off for us.”
Michlig didn’t have to completely overhaul the offense with Bates on the sideline. The Cardinals simply kept doing what they do best.
“I remember when Ben went down, Charlie McCarty saying to Dylan, ‘Hey, it’s just like we’ve done for three or four years. Let’s go and do it.’ There was no change, there was no flinch, it was alright, here we go,” said Michlig.
In his final game filling in at quarterback, Ackermann rushed for six touchdowns and threw for another in a 48-20 win over Wisconsin Heights.
Bates returned to the field on Oct. 12 against Phillips, and the Cardinals finished the regular season strong.
Now their focus is on the playoffs.
The Cardinals have state championship aspirations, but are mindful of taking a one-game-at-a-time approach.
Newman will be a heavy favorite to brush aside Marion/Tigerton in the first round of the playoffs, but they’re not taking anything for granted.
“We’ve got to make it feel like a new season,” Ben Bates said. “We’ve got to bring more energy than we have before.”
“The playoffs are such a unique situation,” Michlig said. “This is not like every other sport in the WIAA where everyone gets to go to the playoffs. So you have to earn your way to get to this and that kind of makes it a different situation. You’re focused a little better than you are during the course of the season.”
Newman’s superior athleticism up is reflected by the fact that they’ve outscored their opponents 430-119.
But there is another equally critical component that would be easy to overlook.
“We’re able to stay really close and keep a close bond,” Stephan said. “We’re always hanging out and doing things together, and that goes to the field as well.”
“We all get along,” Ben Bates said. “A lot of the other schools, I think the seniors don’t get along with the freshmen. Here, my younger brother is a freshman. I know that group really well and so do the other seniors. They know the freshmen well, they know the sophomores well. Every single person from freshman to senior, we really have a good relationship.”
Newman’s talent and sense of brotherhood have yielded tremendous results so far. How deep it will take them into the playoffs remains to be seen.
One thing is for certain. It’s going to be an exciting ride.