Toppers hoping for return to glory

Frank Koehnke (left) and Chad Zirbel (right) are both questionable for tonight’s season opener. While Koehnke’s chances to play are good, Zirbel’s knee injury could keep him on the sidelines awhile. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)



By Mike Ramczyk

Burlington Catholic Central head football coach Tom Aldrich rolled to his left Tuesday afternoon at the St. Mary’s practice field, loaded up and fired a spiral to a crossing Frank Koehnke.

“I didn’t even get a chance to warm up,” Aldrich chuckled, as the players enjoyed the coach’s light-hearted nature.

The Toppers are coming off a 1-8 season, their first losing campaign since 1996, and Koehnke ran his crossing route in street clothes, due to a badly bruised wrist and a broken index finger.

Koehnke, a senior who hasn’t played football since third grade, and starting quarterback Chad Zirbel, were both out of Tuesday’s practice.

Zirbel, who passed for 720 yards and seven touchdowns and rushed for 573 yards and nine scores in 2016, had a brace on his right knee.

On a team that only features three seniors, the other being another first-time football player, Charles Robinson, the Toppers’ quest to return to greatness won’t be easy.

“It’s unlikely that Frank and Chad will be able to play,” Aldrich said. “I’ll be surprised if they’re able to play.”

The Toppers travel to New Glarus/Monticello at 7 p.m. Friday to open the regular season, and a varsity squad that features 25 players is already short-handed.

“We have to go back to the puzzle and re-cut the pieces,” said Aldrich, who is in his 26th season. “We feel good these kids are playing hard, and they are doing what we ask of them.”

Zirbel is a dual threat offensively who also leads the defense at linebacker. If he can’t go Friday, sophomore David Doerslinger, a transfer from New Berlin, will fill in at quarterback. Doerslinger is expected to play receiver with Zirbel at quarterback.


An immediate impact

For Koehnke, who is a standout baseball and basketball player, joining the team was about helping the team return to the top of the Metro Classic Conference.

A superior athlete, Koehnke has made a strong impression and is slated to be the team’s featured running back and play linebacker.

He said a linebacker’s helmet smashed into his wrist in last week’s scrimmage.

“I initially thought it was broken and went to the hospital for X-rays right away,” Koehnke said. “Today, I am feeling a lot better and I am hoping to get cleared and possibly play this Friday. The reason why I played football was because I knew that if I didn’t play, I would regret it in the future.”

“I love the sport but I didn’t play it my first three years because I wanted to really focus on my two main sports, baseball and basketball. Since I’m a senior now, and only have one more year of high school sports, I thought it would be a good idea to play.”

Koehnke will be a main weapon for the Toppers, and he can run and catch out of the backfield.

Aldrich said Koehnke and sophomore Paul Nevin will share the rushing load in more of a traditional option offense this season.

Wide receivers, Brandon Pum, Nick Aldrich and Benny Wright will help on the outside, while the trenches will be manned by three returning starters, Tyler Shaw, Luke Sassano and Simon Pedone, and tackle Doug Januszewski.

“Right now I think we are looking pretty good,” Koehnke said. “We are improving every day, but we need to continue to improve as the season goes on. We have a lot of work to do.”


Relying on speed

Aldrich said the offensive line isn’t big, with the average weight between 180 and 200 pounds, but the guys will be competitive with their speed.

Defensively, the team is switching to a traditional 4-3, whereas last year’s “radar” package was more unorthodox and involved more pressure and players near the line of scrimmage.

“We will have multiple fronts and have less changes week to week,” Aldrich said.

While Zirbel will anchor the defense, Chas Miles, Pedone, Sassano, Shaw, Januszewski and Tristan Welka all started last year and should play key roles.

“We have weapons offensively, but we pretty much have a lot of new defensive guys,” Aldrich said.

Based on the scrimmage, Aldrich said a lot of guys still doubt themselves, but he said they will gain confidence.

The conference won’t do the Toppers any favors, as Racine St. Cat’s features an exceptional quarterback and Greendale Martin Luther will be strong.

So what will it take to get back to Catholic Central’s winning ways?

“The most important thing is getting better each week,” Aldrich said. “I really believe we’ll be better than last year. That doesn’t necessarily have to do with our record. We want to get back in the playoffs. Some goals are more realistic than others.”



(HOME GAMES CAPS, all games 7 p.m. unless noted)

August – 18: at New Glarus/Monticello. 25: at Lake Country Lutheran. 31: SHORELAND LUTHERAN. September – 8: WHITEFISH BAY DOMINICAN. 15: at Greendale Martin Luther. 22: KENOSHA ST. JOSEPH. 30: at Racine Lutheran, Horlick Field, 11:30 a.m. October – 7: at St. Thomas More, 2 p.m. 13: RACINE ST. CAT’S.