By Mitchell A. Skurzewski
For Wausau Pilot & Review
WISCONSIN RAPIDS – Eli Gustafson walked off the field with his arms raised, as Wausau Newman Catholic was on the cusp of winning the WIAA 8-Player Football State Championship.
He was looking for one person, injured teammate Thomas Bates. Bates has been out since tearing his left ACL in a Week 3 game against Wausau East.
“This is for you, all for you,” Gustafson said to him after a hug.
Gustafson scored three touchdowns, two receiving and one fumble recovery, as Wausau Newman Catholic cruised to a 49-6 win over Luck in the WIAA 8-Player Football State Championship game on Saturday afternoon at Wisconsin Rapids High School.
“This was for Thomas,” Gustafson said. “It felt insane, I went to him when the zeroes hit the clock and I gave him the biggest hug. The emotions were very heavy. I wanted to do it with him this year, but I couldn’t so we did it for him.”
“It was an amazing feeling,” Bates said when the clock hit zeroes. “It meant the world. I gave coach (Paul Michlig) a big hug. It was the best feeling I have ever had. I am so proud of (my teammates).”
Though sidelined, Bates spent the past weeks doing everything he could to help the team in its quest for victory. Whether it’s telling teammates what he sees or encouraging them, Bates just wanted to be right there with his teammates and “brothers.”
“It is emotional not being able to play with my friends and teammates, who I have been playing with since like 4th or 5th grade,” he said. “But a state championship is a state championship. I am just so happy right now.”
Newman dominated the entire football game from the opening kickoff, taking the opening drive down for a score on quarterback Conner Krach’s keeper.
Newman has a slogan, “the separation is in the preparation.” The Newman Cardinals looked well-prepared and there was big separation created over Luck.
“To score 42 in the first half in the state title game and to hold them to 6 points, our kids executed. That was the key, the execution,” Newman head coach Paul Michlig said. “Credit to these kids that they were able to do it.
“Any time you get a gold ball it’s a great feeling. The way the kids came out and played, I am just so happy for these kids. To just have the opportunity to play in a game like this, they don’t give these things out like Skittles, is great and then to get a gold ball, it’s special.”
Newman collected 22 first downs and held Luck to just four and Newman outgained Luck 371-87 on the day in completing their undefeated season and winning a state title for their injured star player.
“When Thomas went out we knew we had to do it for him, for all the work he put into the offseason and we did,” Krach said. “This one’s for Thomas.
“When we embraced after the game it was a great feeling. He knew he was as important off the field as he was on the field.”
Krach and Gustafson were standouts for the Cardinals on the biggest stage. Krach connected with Gustafson for back-to-back scores in the second quarter and Newman was on its way, up 21-0. Krach threw for 131 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 128 yards and three more scores, a dimension the Cardinals’ offense never needed to break out until the playoffs.
“We didn’t really need to do that until the playoffs,” Michlig said of using Krach’s running ability. “We didn’t feel the need to take that gamble. We had to make sure Conner was healthy for the playoff run. We feel like we are pretty balanced in that regard.”
Newman was up 35-0 when Luck’s Connor Svoboda sprung for a 72-yard touchdown for it’s only score of the game. With Luck only having 87 yards of offense, it shows how dominant the Newman defense was the rest of the game.
Newman had less than 40 seconds to respond to the score from Svoboda, but it did.
Krach hit Nathan Klement for a 20-yard gain and set up his 1-yard leaping plunge by Krach with a connection to Gustafson for 37 yards.
Newman scored 35 points in the second quarter, including on the first play (Gustafson 12-yard reception) and final play of the quarter.
Gustafson and Krach have formed a strong connection as the season has gone on, including 4 times for 63 yards and two scores Saturday.
“I have complete trust in him and he’s a big kid and I know if I throw it up there he will go find it,” Krach said.
“Konner and Eli really picked up the slack and really did all year with Thomas being out,” Michlig said. “That junior class is really close class and always has been, in all sports. That’s where that connection (for those two) comes from.”
The entire team felt connected all season, Michlig said. That’s what makes the win and the culmination of winning a state championship that much more emotional.
“I wouldn’t bet against these kids, I’ll tell you that,”he said. “They had to overcome things throughout the season. Anytime you have kids like that you just don’t want the season to end. It’s fun, not having practice won’t be fun, but we have a gold ball in the trophy case so that’s a great feeling.”
Newman Catholic 49, Luck 6
Newman Catholic 7 35 0 7 – 49
Luck 0 6 0 0 – 6
N – Conner Krach 7 run (Matthew Hamilton kick), 9:42.
N – Eli Gustafson 12 pass from Krach (Hamilton kick), 11:54.
N – Gustafson 5 pass from Krach (Hamilton kick), 10:06.
N – Krach 26 run (Hamilton kick), 7:45.
N – Jacob Pfiffner 5 run (Hamilton kick), 0:51.
L – Connor Svoboda 72 run (ran failed), 0:30.
N – Krach 1 run (Hamilton kick), 0:00.
N – Gustafson fumble return (Hamilton kick), 0:00.
First downs: Newman 22; Luck 4.
Rushing (att-yards): N 36-240; L 34-87.
Passing (comp-att-yards-int): N 11-15-131-0; L 0-1-0-0.
Total yards: N 371; L 87.
Fumbles (total-lost): N 2-1; L 8-2.
Penalties (no.-yards): N 3-25; L 4-35.
Rushing: N, Conner Krach 12-128, Eli Gustafson 9-44, Jacob Pffifner 6-38, Josh Klement 8-31, Team 1-minus 1. L, Connor Svoboda 14-71, J. Blechinger 13-35, Mike Hochstetler 4-3, Team 3-minus 22.
Passing: N, Krach 11-15-131-0. L, Svoboda 0-1-0-0.
Receiving: N, Pffifner 5-38, Gustafson 4-63, Nathan Klement 1-25, J. Klement 1-5.
Records: Newman Catholic 13-0; Luck 10-3.