Injuries, numbers take toll, Toppers forced to play JV schedule

Catholic Central sophomore Bennett Wright is escorted off the field last season due to concussion-like symptoms. The Toppers got to a point where they didn’t have enough players to back up every position, and the varsity season was cancelled as a safety measure. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)


By Mike Ramczyk

A rich football tradition was bruised in 2017.

After injuries decimated the Catholic Central football team, losses piled up and numbers dwindled, the Toppers had no choice but to forfeit the remainder of their season.

It was the third biggest sports story in the Standard Press this year.

Here’s the original version, which ran in the Oct. 5 edition:  

“This decision, mentally and emotionally, has hurt all of us.”

The Catholic Central varsity football season has been cancelled, including the final three games.

Tom Aldrich, the school’s athletic director and head football coach, simply had no choice, and his use of the word “hurt” in the aforementioned quote took on an entire new meaning this fall.

A team that began the season with 25 players, only three of them seniors and 11 upperclassmen, saw its starting quarterback miss the entire season with a knee injury and best two running backs miss the past few games with concussions. After a month, they haven’t passed concussion protocol, a test that allows you to return to practice.

With a mere seven healthy upperclassmen as of Wednesday, and a total of 20 players, Aldrich said the 0-6 Toppers, who have been outscored 259-35 this season, are in danger on the football field, and the injured players have not been healing in time to return to action.

An idea tossed around the coaching staff for the past month, Aldrich and the school decided to cancel the varsity season Monday night.

“We cancelled the remainder of the varsity season because we were worried for the safety of our players,” Aldrich said. “We no longer felt comfortable with the number or physical size of our underclassmen we needed to play to field a team.”

“This was not an easy decision for any of us involved with the school or the football program. As a coach, you develop pretty good relationships with your players. When something hurts them, it hurts you as well. I truly believe this was the right decision to make, but it’s frustrating. Informing the kids of the decision was tough. We constantly preach to our kids about never giving up, getting better each play and about persevering, and now I feel like I pulled the rug out from under them or threw up the white flag.”


Low numbers, injuries took significant toll

The odds were stacked before the first football was kicked off this season. With only 25 players, including a majority of underclassmen, the Toppers averaged around 180 pounds on the offensive line, with opponents often boasting players well above 200 pounds.

By the time the injuries piled up, players ranging from 126 to 155 pounds were on the field.

The Toppers will play the final three games against junior varsity competition, and Aldrich said the guys are going to have fun.

Aldrich, who is 180-102 and has won two state championships during his three-decade tenure, along with numerous conference titles, endured a 1-8 season last year, the team’s first losing campaign since 1996. Then, with a school enrollment at 126 this season and only 25 players, a slew of injuries mounted, including starting quarterback Chad Zirbel, who put up the majority of the offensive numbers last season.

When Frank Koehnke and Paul Nevin went down with concussions early in the season, along with a few linemen, the situation quickly became grim.

“I still get a lot of headaches,” said Koehnke, who came out for football for the first time, along with senior Charles Robinson, to support their friend Zirbel. “I’m feeling a little better, but I am still injured. And I completely respect coach’s decision. We had a low number of guys, and we didn’t want to put kids out there that weren’t physically mature enough to go against a varsity team.”

“I feel bad for my teammates because they are unable to complete the season. I am hoping to be back in a couple weeks to prepare for basketball. My concussion isn’t bad, but it for sure isn’t good.”

Frank’s dad, Forrest, said you can’t put a price on safety, and added that he hasn’t heard anything negative from any parents about the decision to forfeit the final three games.

According to Forrest Koehnke, Aldrich is preparing these young men for the road ahead, not just football.

“Life isn’t always fair or easy,” Forrest said. “The decision to cancel the season was the right one, and from a safety standpoint Aldrich had no choice.”

“As a parent, you’re always concerned about your child’s health, but that’s life. You can get injured crossing the street.”


Future of program is bright

Aldrich doesn’t think this is about a deeper issue of the safety of the sport of football. With what trainers and schools are informed of now, it begs the question of what would’ve happened if this was 10 years ago?

Would players have played with the concussions not knowing the dangers and risked even further catastrophe?

While Aldrich admits injuries will occur in any sport, and he is pleased that trainers are at just about every single high school sporting event, he says football is a different animal and requires a certain courage and commitment unlike other activities.

“I don’t think fewer kids are interested in playing football, but I do believe fewer kids are willing to commit the time and effort necessary to play football,” Aldrich said. “It takes dedication, loyalty and commitment to play football. The willingness, courage and inner strength to make sacrifices for your teammates instead of just thinking of yourself and what’s best for you.”

Though the low numbers will always be a challenge for the Toppers, the team potentially welcomes back 22 players next season along with a large freshman class.

Will Catholic Central football, one of the most successful and storied programs in the state, return to the varsity level in 2018?

“Never underestimate a bunch of determined kids with a common goal,” Aldrich said. “I am certain we will have a varsity and JV football team next year.”