Nov. 14, 2019

By Scott Williams

WAUSAU – Ben Bates felt some pain in his leg after being tackled in a game against Algoma on Sept. 6. Newman Catholic’s all-state senior quarterback figured it might be a pretty nasty bruise.

His amateur medical diagnosis was to rub some rubberized pellets from the astro turf on the injured spot and get back behind center for the 8-player football game in a matter of minutes.

The pain lingered. Newman Catholic trainers came out on the field to check him out. Bates needed help getting off the field.

“When I went down in Algoma I just remember right away, my leg didn’t hurt that much,” Bates recollected. “I figured I would go back in the second half and be fine.”

Upon closer inspection, the training staff felt something shift in his leg. A trip to the hospital discovered Bates had broken his leg.

Bates feared his senior season might be over. The Cardinals wondered if their potentially special season might be doomed too.

“I was just worrying about if I could play again this season or if my football career was finished,” the quarterback said.

The answer to his concerns was no.

Bates is back, and the Cardinals have returned to the WIAA 8-player state championship game set for Dorais Field in Chippewa Falls on Saturday. Kickoff is at 1 p.m.

Just as was the case in 2017, Luck will be standing on the opposite sideline. Both teams enter with perfect 12-0 records. The state title matchup features No. 1 (Luck) against No. 2.

Newman Catholic defeated Luck 34-32 in the “Jamboree,” an unofficial state championship game, the last time the teams squared off.

“The truth is that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for these kids and this program,” Cardinals coach Paul Michlig said. “We have never played for a championship in football and to being having this chance is special for these kids and for all of these people that kept this program going 18 years ago.

“We have been through many up and downs, but those kids that stayed out back in 2002 were the reason Newman still has a football program. For some schools this would be just another day at the office, but we haven’t had this opportunity.”

Reaching the state championship game has offered another form of perseverance.

Not many 11-player teams would be able to overcome losing an all-state quarterback for an extended period of time.

The odds of an 8-player team, with even more limited backup options and skilled athletes, being able to overcome to deal that kind of adversity would seem impossible.

“The fact is we are playing 8-man football at a small school, so when we lose a player of Ben’s talent we are filling his huge shoes plus we are probably filling the person that we put in his spot’s shoes also,” Michlig noted. “It isn’t next man up, it is how do we shuffle the deck.

“I told Ben, ‘When you get back, we will be a better team because of this.’ I think we are. I will say it was one of the toughest injuries that I had to see in 18 years because when a kid like Ben works so hard and does everything right, you literally get ill thinking about him missing games his senior year.”

Someone apparently forgot to tell the Cardinals that was the case. More specifically, junior backup quarterback Dylan Ackermann.

Newman Catholic never skipped a beat. A scoring machine when Bates was running the showed continued to hum right along.

It was a credit to the unflappable Ackermann, and a coaching staff that put him in a position to succeed week in and week out in the absence of Bates.

“We realized that we still needed to do what we do, win. We had worked all off-season to play hard and to put a great season together, and nothing was going to get in our way, especially not an injury,” Ackermann said.

“When Bates went down we realized that we needed to step up and make the next big play. Our mindset stayed positive, and we understood that Bates would soon be back and that we just had to play our hardest and leave it all on the field every week.”

Much like Bates before him, Ackermann benefited from a wealth of weapons around him.

Charlie McCarty and Joe Stephan give the Cardinals a dynamic 1-2 punch at wide receiver the duo has combined for 2,072 and 25 touchdowns.

Ackermann also had the option of handing off to a star in the making in freshman running back Thomas Bates.

The younger Bates has racked up 1,18 yards and 25 TDs on the ground.

“When coach told us that his leg was broken and he was going to miss significant time, I felt really bad for Bates. He was having another all-state season and was playing great,” Ackermann said. “But the reality is injuries are a part of the game just like throwing TDs.

“I was confident in myself and my teammates, and I knew the coaching staff was going to get me the reps I needed to be successful. I was going to have to execute when the time came.”

Now the time has come for the Cardinals to finish the job and bring home their first state football championship.

Most of Newman Catholic’s wins during the regular season and playoffs have been of a lopsided nature. The closest outcome was a 28-14 victory over Elkhart Lake-Glenbeulah in Week 6.

That will likely not be the case Saturday against Luck.

“We are looking forward to having the chance to play the best,” Michlig said. “Luck is by far the best team in the state for 8-man and they have proved that year after year. They are very sound in all three phases.”

There is no mystery behind Luck’s success. It relies on good old-fashioned power football, at least the 8-player version, and a prolific ground attack.

If the Cardinals want to be holding the gold trophy late Saturday afternoon, priority No. 1 will be stopping, or at least slowing down, Luck’s three-headed monster in the run game.

One thing Newman Catholic knows for sure is someone named Jensen will likely have the football in his hands. The terrific trio of Levi Jensen, Bennett Jensen and Wyatt Jensen have been a wrecking crew for Luck. The trio has combined to rush for 3,410 yards and a whopping 66 touchdowns.

“Luck likes to pound the ball with the run. Other teams have done that as well, but Luck does with more of a ‘magic show’ as we like to call it. There is a lot of misdirection from the quarterback,” Ackermann said. “The key is for all of us to stay focused on our jobs in order to find success.”

If they do their jobs well enough to earn the ‘W’ on Saturday, the Cardinals will make program history. Something not lost on the players and coaches.

“This really means a lot, especially for our coaches. They have been with the program for many years and they’ve gone through all the ups and downs,” Ben Bates said. “You really don’t fully appreciate something unless you’re deprived of it at some point.

“I would say that this means the most for not only the players now, but the former players and all the former and current coaches because they kept this program alive.”

Michlig echoed those sentiments.

“We’re looking forward to honoring these (past) teams by how we play on Saturday, not if we win or lose, but by how hard we play,” the coach said.