Newman vs. Wausau East on Sept. 10, 2021: Photo by Mitch Skurzerwski for Wausau Pilot & Review

By Mitchell A. Skurzewski

For Wausau Pilot & Review 

Wausau Newman Catholic Athletic Director Cory Marquardt received a call just before kickoff of the Cardinals’ Week 2 game against New Auburn at Stiehm Stadium. 

Newman’s opponent the next week was Alma Center. They were cancelling their game against Newman. 

Marquardt quickly went to work. With Newman drubbing New Auburn at halftime, Marquardt checked with Cardinals head football coach Paul Michlig at intermission about the possibilities going forward. 

By Saturday night a game against crosstown foe Wausau East was “90 percent good to go.” By Monday, Newman agreed to the game with the Lumberjacks at Thom Field. 

“You kind of talk to teams, coaches before the season to see potential options if games are cancelled,” Marquardt said. “I think part of it is just the current climate of high school sports. I think it is highlighted a bit with 8-man football, because of COVID-19 and some teams only have 15 kids out for football.”

The cancellation for Newman, which came in week three of the season, allowed Wausau East to play a home game at Thom Field. East made the decision to go to 8-man football late in the summer due to low numbers of players. Due to the late switch, East has played every single game on the road – other than the matchup against Newman.

“Coach Michlig from Newman filled us in on the constant struggles of maintaining a healthy team in 8-player football,” Wausau East Athletic Director Kurt Vanden Heuvel said. “We knew there was a good chance we would play, it was just a matter of when. Thankfully with them being so close to us, we were able to get it scheduled at Thom Field.”

The game also allowed for seniors and parents to participate in a years-long tradition – senior and parents night for all the athletes who put long hours of work and time into their sport over their high school careers.

“We are truly indebted to their efforts and that is why we work so hard to get games for them to play in,” Vanden Heuvel said.

Ultimately, Vanden Heuvel had to be particularly nimble and creative with an 11-man JV football team and an 8-man varsity team. Throw in cancellations with COVID-19 issues and quarantine related cancellations, lining up referees, buses – well, the whole thing can make your head spin just thinking about it.

“There are constant email and text conversations that occur when scheduling games,” Vanden Heuvel said.”The issue comes, for us, is trying to get them at home. Due to us trying to get 8 player games, we are working with teams who already have scheduled games. Usually when a team reaches out it is due to them losing an opponent at their home field. In normal circumstances it would be easy to play them, but with bus driver shortages, illness, injury, and COVID, it has become quite a task to put all the pieces in place.”

Another local team, Greenwood, saw multiple games cancelled and AD Jenni Mayenschein said it was a bit frantic as games many times are cancelled on short notice. 

“When a game is lost, it can be difficult to find a replacement team,” she said. “This year seems to be a little different than last year or maybe it just happened to us more often this year. I think being flexible and willing to travel makes a difference. Maybe we have been lucky and were able to fill our games that were cancelled except the first of the season, which was called that Friday afternoon.”

As the regular season concluded Friday, Newman is gearing up for a potential deep playoff run and play Greenwood in 8-man playoff opener Friday, while the Lumberjacks are happy to have had the ability to hold a season and just play games. 

The Lumberjacks are planning for a return to 11-man football.

“The 8 player decision was to provide an opportunity for the seniors to play football. Due to our enrollment we are not even close to being eligible,” Vanden Heuvel said. “This is why we are keeping our focus on creating an atmosphere that motivates students to want to play football to where we can grow our numbers to be a competitive 11-player school.”

For Greenwood, and other local teams, 8-man is not temporary. In fact, many surrounding teams like Owen-Withee, Athens, Gilman have moved down to 8-man and it’s likely permanent. More teams means not just taking the first opening, but should allow for easier scheduling with more scheduling options.

“We do have more teams that will be moving to 8-man in our area next year,” Mayenschein said. “It will almost be the old Cloverwood conference back together. We are looking forward to that again. Playing familiar teams and similar competition levels.”