Friday Night Lights set to return

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Rob Reischel
Jason Pertzborn and his Middleton football team open their new season Friday when they host Beloit Memorial at 7 p.m./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

Jason Pertzborn has spent the last two weeks playing doctor, nurse, receptionist, motivator — and oh yeah, football coach.

Middleton’s second-year boss has taken temperatures before practices, shuffled through piles of administrative work and tried keeping morale high — all while getting his team ready for Friday’s season-opener against Beloit Memorial.

At times, Pertzborn himself admits he’s been “beaten down.” But after a long battle just to have this alternate football season, all Pertzborn needs to do is look at his team to quickly feel rejuvenated.

“It’s been a lot of work, and it’s been stressful,” Pertzborn said. “But when we’re out on the field, it’s been therapeutic. The energy and the chatter of the kids has been awesome. There’s no place they’d rather be.”

There’s no place Pertzborn and his coaches would rather be, either. And after Middleton spent much of the fall and winter wondering if they’d have a season, the Cardinals can’t wait to get things started Friday.

“I’m so glad to be back coaching football,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Brad Rogeberg said. “I almost thought we weren’t going to have a season and that would have been devastating for these student-athletes.”

It seems like a decade ago, but when we last saw Middleton in the fall of 2019 it put together an impressive season.

The Cardinals went 8-3 overall, highlighted by a six-game winning streak late in the year. Middleton defeated Madison La Follette in the first round of the playoffs, then lost to Madison Memorial in Round 2.

The Cardinals bring back eight starters from that team — six on defense and two on offense — but appear to have plenty of firepower on both sides of the ball to navigate a bizarre schedule.

The WIAA gave all schools in the state the option to push fall sports to the spring last July. The Big Eight Conference schools chose that option, but the four Madison schools are still opting to sit things out.

That means Middleton will play conference foes Sun Prairie, Verona and Beloit Memorial twice this spring, as well as face Monona Grove once.

Middleton scrimmaged Janesville Parker last Saturday and was dominant throughout. Afterwards, Pertzborn was extremely optimistic about the potential of his team.

“We’re excited,” Pertzborn said. “We were impressive in the scrimmage, and right now, I really don't see any weak links.”

Pertzborn, who also runs the offense, made several changes to that side of the ball since the end of last season.

The Cardinals have switched from the passing tree to a system centered around concepts. The change should make things easier for quarterbacks to make quick decisions, get the ball out faster, and theoretically increase completion percentages.

“I feel like our old way gave us too many options,” Pertzborn said. “From what I’ve seen in practice, the kids and quarterbacks get it. This is going to help get us in a better position to know what’s going to come open.”

Senior Sawyer Pertzborn has had an outstanding spring camp and will be the Cardinals’ quarterback. Pertzborn has a strong arm, is accurate and can tuck the ball and run, if necessary.

“Sawyer looks really sharp. He’s been really good so far,” Jason Pertzborn said. “Really our whole passing game is gelling. It’s a group of kids that works well together and Sawyer is making good throws.”

The Cardinals should have a gifted group of pass catchers for Pertzborn to work with.

Senior Michael Gustafson, one of two returning offensive starters, caught 13 passes in 2019. Gustafson is currently nursing a hamstring injury, but should be ready for a big year when he returns.

Seniors George Finch and Nolan Franzen have had impressive springs, while junior Cole Toennies and senior Josh Stormer are defensive starters that could help occasionally on offense.

Senior Bryce Hensen and junior Colin Schremp are the frontrunners at tight end, and could both see a lot of playing time as the Cardinals look to utilize more two tight end sets than recent years.

Middleton also changed much of its terminology in the run game, something Pertzborn thinks will make it tougher to decipher what the Cardinals are doing.

The greater issue, though, could be replacing running back Kallion Buckner, who was named honorable-mention all-state in 2019. That season, Buckner ran for 1,721 yards and had 29 total touchdowns.

Junior Elijah Gray and senior Parker Winkler are currently battling to be the Cardinals’ next bellcow. Junior Tanner Ballweg will be the fullback.

“I liked both of them and how they ran,” Jason Pertzborn said of the scrimmage. “They both had some powerful runs where they ran people over. They let the blocking happen, stayed in the hole and trusted the scheme.”

Middleton must replace four starters from a stellar offensive line, including honorable-mention all-state performer Clay Craker.

Senior Taylor Simmons, an honorable-mention all-Big Eight Conference guard in 2019, is the lone returning starter. Simmons will move to center this year, where he will anchor a unit light on experience, but packed with potential.

Mammoth junior Jack Alexander (6-4, 285) is the frontrunner at left tackle. Junior Seth Davis (6-0, 290) can play right tackle or guard, while junior Max Lampe (6-7, 340) is a strong candidate to play right tackle.

Juniors Kenny Richards, Kevin Spahn, Keda Seals, Alex Kulie and Kaden Peterson are also fighting for interior positions.

Middleton’s line in 2019 averaged 6-foot-2 and 264.4 pounds. Amazingly, this group could wind up even bigger.

“I thought we’d be smaller than last year, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” Pertzborn said. “That line (in 2019) was something special, though. Hopefully we can reach that level.”

Middleton certainly believes its defense can be special. The Cardinals have labeled themselves the “Pain Train” and have enormous aspirations.

Middleton instituted a 3-4 defense in 2019, and after some early rough patches, found a groove. The Cardinals allowed just 15.2 points per game during their winning streak and finished the year with 35 sacks and 19 forced turnovers.

With another year in the system — and an experienced group of returnees — Middleton’s defense figures to be a huge strength.

“These are a bunch of unselfish guys who are incredible to coach,” Rogeberg said. “I can't wait each day to get on the field and coach these guys. These guys challenge each other to get better and we will be tested by some really good teams this year.”

Senior inside linebackers Nolan Dunn and Cole Rogeberg figure to lead the defense.

Dunn was a second-team all-Big Eight performer in 2019, when he led the Cardinals with 75 tackles, had eight tackles for loss, one forced fumble and one interception. Cole Rogeberg could be poised for a breakout year playing next to Dunn.

“Nolan Dunn is one of the best inside linebackers in the state,” Brad Rogeberg said. “(Nolan and Cole) are team captains and they actually have been training together non-stop in the off-season, four days a week and it’s really showing on the field. 

“Nolan and Cole are the heart and soul of our defense. They will be our signal callers and they both bring the juice to each practice.”

Senior outside linebacker Cole Yanke had five sacks and 53 tackles in 2019, while junior outside linebacker Blake VanBuren is a potential standout.

“These two guys will have huge seasons for us,” Brad Rogeberg said of Yanke and VanBuren. “They both are strong and will be asked to help us on the run, and they both have great speed, so they will also be asked to help us in coverage.” 

Juniors Geo Mendez and Alex Endres offer quality backups inside, while Hensen and Schremp will see time at outside linebacker when they’re not playing offense.

“Our linebackers this year could be as good of a group as I have seen at Middleton in my 25 plus years,” Brad Rogeberg said. “We have guys who can really run and are physical. These guys want to run downhill and attack.”

Up front, Seals (5-11, 280) will start at nose tackle, while seniors Michael Parente (5-11, 205) and Mason Engelien (6-1, 220) will start at defense end.

Others like Simmons, Alexander, Lampe, Davis and Peterson will see spot duty when they’re not playing on the offensive line.

“Our defensive line is a great group of hard working guys who want to get better every day,” Rogeberg said. “In our defense, the defensive line is where it all begins. These guys have to want to mix it up and get off of blocks and cause havoc by blowing up blocking schemes.”

In back, Middleton’s safety tandem of Josh Stormer and Quinn Calvin could be sensational.

Stormer was named second-team all-Big Eight in 2019 when he led the Cardinals with five interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown. He also made the play of the game in a playoff victory over Madison La Follette, knocking away a two-point conversion pass with just one second left to preserve a 21-20 Middleton lead.

Calvin was named honorable-mention all-league after finishing second on the team in tackles (56), had nine tackles for loss, eight passes defensed and two sacks.

“We have two outstanding senior safeties in Josh Stormer and Quinn Calvin,” Brad Rogeberg said. “Both of these guys are super athletic and can cover, blitz or run downhill to help us on the run.”

Senior Danny Esser and Toennies will open at corner. Senior Armari Tucker and junior Colin Krueger are battling for time at corner, while Franzen could factor in at safety.

“The secondary is a really solid group,” Brad Rogeberg said. “Currently we have six or seven really good players who are fighting for playing time. I think these guys feed off of each other and could be an amazing unit as the season progresses.”

Sawyer Pertzborn, who made 43 of 45 extra points in 2019, is back to handle the kicking duties. Middleton lost all-state punter Jake Wuebben to graduation, and might now turn to Calvin.

Currently, the WIAA isn't offering a postseason for football. So after a 17-month layoff since their last game, the Cardinals will attack every week and every opportunity with vigor and verve.

“We want to win. We’re not coming out here not to win,” Jason Pertzborn said. “If you can find a way to win twice against Sun Prairie and twice against Verona, that’s a feather in your hat. When those games take place, there will be a tremendous amount of talent of the field.

“And our seniors are hungry. They’ve been waiting a long time for this moment and we’re really excited to get this thing going.”


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