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THE FIGHTING CARDINALS RULE 8-PLAYER FOOTBALL…SURVIVING WITH LOW STUDENT NUMBERS


Newman players hoisting the 8-player championship trophy after beating Belmont in 2022


Back in January, after the state records were updated on the WFCA web site I got an email from a father of the star quarterback for the Wausau Newman Catholic Fighting Cardinals. The three or four additions I had erroneously omitted were quickly added. I was pleasantly surprised that I had received so few new additions after the posts that I had overlooked overall for both 11-player and 8-player. I guess I had made the updates correctly and I felt good.


I’m not sorry that my attention is 98% focused on 11-player football but I do need to pay more attention to the 8-player side of the game and add a few more stories.


While adding the missing records I noticed that Newman really had quite a record from when they switched to 8-player in 2017. In fact, they have the best record for the past six seasons of any Wisconsin football team with an incredible 63-2 record over the past six seasons. This includes two state titles (2021 and 2022), an undefeated COVID shortened season in 2020 (5-0), two state runner-up seasons (2018 and 2019) and a great initial 8-player season in 2017. The Cardinals won the Jamboree, a precursor to the official start of the 8-player state championships, with a 10-0 season, that year. This was after the team went 1-9 in their final 11-player season in 2016.




In 13 seasons, 2004-2016, Coach Paul Michlig had only been able to compile a 45-80 record with two brake-even 5-5 seasons and only two winning seasons (7-3 in 2009 and 7-5 in 2010). A 1996 grad from Newman, Michlig attended UW-Eau Claire and then returned to Newman as an assistant coach. He spent two seasons in that position and then became the head football coach. Things were tough with Newman being placed in several of the WIAA formed conferences (First the Marawood and later the Cloverwood) from 2000-2017 with tough competition against top teams like Stratford, Edgar and Abbotsford. After being a middle of the road team in the old Central Wisconsin Catholic Conference under the former WISAA format the transition to the Marawood was tough. Prior to joining the WIAA the school had endured a 27-game losing streak. Never having a large school enrollment and having to deal with the likes of Wisconsin Rapids Assumption, Marshfield Columbus, Eau Claire Regis and Chippewa Falls McDonell year in and year out in the WISAA things were tough for the Wausau school.


When the move to 8-player football was first discussed it was thought that maybe the school could co-op with Wausau East and remain in the 11-player format, but things didn’t work out. To me this was a surprise that the Wausau schools have been “down” for so long in the sport after the heyday of Coach Win Brockmeyer. But, since 1970 with the introduction of new schools to the area and new school boundaries being drawn up it’s been hard for Wausau East and Wausau West to compete in the Wisconsin Valley Conference and the Valley Football Association. Newman opened in 1951 but found it hard to draw good players from Wausau High with Brockmeyer in charge.


When the 2016 season ended and the decision to move to 8-player Michlig and his assistants put their nose to the grindstone to learn all they could about the game. They went to the Iowa football coaches annual clinic, picked a lot of coach's brains and spent time with their players planning for the next season. They obtained film and studied the game hard. In Iowa there is rule that if the school has fewer than 115 students, they have to play 8-man (Yes, it is called “man” in Iowa as well in some other states) football. The move was natural for Newman for player safety. Michlig had his share of injuries to his players over the years and this caused the team to be shorthanded against bigger schools. He might have had 22-25 players on his squad but some with limited experience or nursing an injury. The move to 8-player made sense.


The move was helped by the development of a very good quarterback, Ben Bates. At 6’2, 185-pounds, Bates stepped in and tossed the ball for a career record 7,022 yards and 95 touchdowns with only 12 interceptions leading the Cardinals to a three-year record of 33-2. Bates ranks #1 as the all-time 8-player passing yardage leader.


The 2017 season was a surprise after past years but with the more wide-open game and fewer injuries they had the right players to do the job. Michlig and his staff helped develop brilliant receivers like Elliot Samuels, Charlie McCarty and Joe Stephen who all had seasons of 1,000 yards receiving or more from 2017-2019. Running backs stepped up and several picked up over 1,000 yards in a year. Kelly Kaliface ran for 1,236 yards in 2018. The biggest rushing yardage was achieved in 2019 by freshman Tom Bates who picked up 1,757 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground. This was his biggest season but he was always a threat while gaining a career total of 3,547 yards on the ground and accounted for 84 overall touchdowns. His totals would have been more had he not missed multiple games with a torn ACL in 2021. He was also an outstanding linebacker.


After Ben Bates graduated the quarterback reigns were turned over to Dylan Ackerman who had backed Bates up for the previous three seasons. As a junior backup in 2019 Dylan threw for 855 yards and 10 scores. In the five game COVID shortened 2020 season he threw for 1,110 yards and 19 touchdowns


In 2021 and 2022 the leader in the offense was Conner Krach who was the 2022 8-Player of the Year. Conner ended up passing for 4,016 yards and 63 touchdowns as a two-year starter as well as rushing for 1,681 yards and 29 scores. As a senior in 2022 he was a regular on defense for the first time and intercepted 11 passes. Krach led the Cardinals to a 13-0 season in 2021 and a 12-0 record in 2022 as they won the state title twice. The Cardinals blasted Luck in the 2021 title game 49-6 and Belmont 54-0 in 2022 Kickers Charlie McCarty (2018-2020) and Matthew Hamilton (2021-2022) also have been bright spots in this department. They rank #1 and #2 on the all-time extra points career charts as well as #1-#4 on the single season extra point list.


While I’ve been writing about offense it was the play of the defense that really shown brightly in making a difference. Utilizing a 3-3-2 defense Coach Michlig and his staff found that you needed two good defensive ends to keep the opponents outside rushing game in check. They needed a good middle linebacker as well and good deep defenders. Sometimes they switched to man-toman coverage, assigning a defensive player to shadow a particular player as in 8-player even the center could be a potential receiver.


Michlig and his staff also picked the brains of some great Wisconsin coaches who had been successful 11-player coaches, in particular Terry Laube of Owen-With and Robin Rosenmeyer of Gilman. Both have made the transition to 8-player and been successful in their own right. Michlig’s staff consists of long-term assistants Karl Thorpe, Joe Ackerman and Nate Brill and they have been key factors to the team’s success. Consistency on the playing field as well as those directing the players is very important.


I asked Coach Michlig about 8-player kicking. I noted that few teams chose to try kicking field goals as well as extra points and I asked why his players had been successful. He said that in 8-player the edge game makes it hard to be consistent in the kicking game so many teams just go for it on fourth down instead of trying a field goal and in kicking the extra points they go for two points. Newman has not followed other schools in going for two-points as they have been successful in defending the edges for the extra points but it’s harder for field goals.


In what I expected to be a 35–45-minute phone interview turned into a great, informative 75-minute talk. I learned a lot about 8-player football. Much more than I had before we talked. Coach was free to praise his players and his staff. I admit that I haven’t ever seen an 8-player game in person, but several 2023 games are on my radar to attend. After reading about the game online I understand that it can be like a video game. Lots of shifting with different players eligible for a pass. Games are just intense as 11-player. I know that some 11-player coaches feal that 8-player isn’t “real” football. I other states, besides 11-player and 8-player football some offer 6-player or 9-player and of course, in Canada they play 12-man. The fields vary but most of the regular rules in 11-player are followed in the other formats. For the most part the trimmed down game seems to be safer with fewer injuries.


Paul Michlig…Wausau Daily Herald

I’m a purist and I think 11-player is best. The 2022 game between Washburn and Mellon with a 114-94 game was an aberration. There are high scores in any format but in this day and age super high scores are few and far between. I hope when I view in person 8-player games in the future the scores are like 28-24 or 35-21 not 200 total points scored.


After posting a fabulous record in their first six seasons of 8-player football they have to replace several key players for next year. I’m sure they will be successful in 2023. Coach Michlig and his staff seem to have things in place to keep winning.



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