Football Cardinals happy to turn the page

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Rob Reischel
Middleton co-interim head coaches Joe Poehls (left) and Tim Simon (right), along with the rest of the Cardinals kicked off their 2023 season on Tuesday./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

The Grateful Dead probably said it best

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been.

That’s certainly how Middleton co-football coaches Tim Simon and Joe Poehls, and the rest of the Cardinals have felt since the 2022 season ended.

The past nine months have felt like nine years — or maybe 90.

But the Cardinals were back at it Tuesday morning — and again that afternoon — as the 2023 campaign began.

In the rearview mirror was a bullying scandal, a coaching change and more drama than any show you’ll find on Netflix.

In front of these Cardinals is a clean slate, a fresh start and the hope that comes with a new season.

“We all know the truth and we all love each other and everyone treats each other good,” said Middleton senior outside linebacker Sam Pilof, a Rutgers recruit. “So it was just really good to get out here and compete. It was good. It just felt really, really good.”

Carter Kadow, an offensive tackle who will also play collegiately at Rutgers, agreed with Pilof.

“It brought us back to the roots of why everyone is here,” Kadow said. “And it was great to see all of the coaches and have them coach instead of having them just walk around the weight room. I felt it was a really good atmosphere today and it was just awesome to finally be back.”

When Middleton’s 2022 campaign ended with a loss to Waunakee in Level 2 of the playoffs, no one had a clue of the craziness about to come.

External and internal investigations into the program’s bullying scandal took place. Head coach Jason Pertzborn resigned.

Multiple candidates turned down the head coaching job. Simon and Poehls eventually were named co-head coaches for 2023. And former defensive coordinator Brad Rogeberg was stripped of his role as the head strength and conditioning coordinator, then given it back after several community members voiced their support.

Got all of that?

Simon, who was Middleton’s head coach from 2004-2018, said he and Poehls didn’t talk directly to the team about 2022. Instead, they outlined expectations — both on and off the field — they hope will lead to a quieter 2023.

“All of those things you’re talking about are folded in with our normal talks,” Simon said. “Our four pillars are positive attitude, love and togetherness, unselfish commitment and then life skills like dedication. Those are the four pillars that we’re going to go through, and within that is how we treat other people.

“And when we use the word love with the kids, it’s real love. That’s not lip service. It’s what we’re built on. So within that, you’re covering things that need to be covered, but it’s not making some bold point because of something that’s happened in the past. Kids don’t need that. They’re smarter than that.”

This has the makings to be Middleton’s best team in decades.

Pilof and Kadow are two of the elite players in the state and have already made their college choices. Fellow offensive linemen Kristian Peterson and Hudson Cleary give Middleton one of Wisconsin’s best offensive lines, while Bryce Falk was the Big Eight Conference’s Running Back of the Year in 2022.

Thomas D’Onofrio — who holds Division 1 offers from Toledo and Stetson — is arguably the best safety in the state. Defensive linemen Dominic Frost and Riquone Burks are returning first-team all-conference players that could give Middleton one of the state’s best defensive fronts. And quarterback Gabe Passini is a three-year starter who recently picked up a Division 1 offer from St. Thomas.

Everywhere you look — on both sides of the ball — are playmakers. And it could lead to Middleton’s finest season in several years.

“The bar is set high, but welcome to Middleton High School,” Poehls said. “Biggest school in the state.

“That doesn’t bother me and I feel like the kids do a good job of understanding all of that. We want to play the game for each other, especially after the last seven months. This is what we’ve had to cling to.”

Simon agreed with his new co-head coach.

“It’s about the process. It’s about getting better every day,” Simon said. “The scoreboard at the end of the game on Friday nights means a lot to a lot of people, but what means the most to us is did we get better each day? Did we win the day? Are we better today than we were yesterday? And if we focus on the process, close all other things out, things will take care of themselves.”

The Cardinals know rival fan bases could be relentless all year.

Several opposing student sections chanted at Middleton’s fans during basketball season, and enemy crowds could be unyielding throughout the fall.

“I want to hear that,” Pilof said. “It’s fuel. It’s fuel in the tank.

“I think we’re all ready for it because we all played other sports. We know our core values and we know the truth, so it’s not going to affect us in any way. We’re ready for it.”

Added Kadow: “Everyone’s going to want to take us out, but we just have to be strong. Just keep working and make sure we keep our eyes on our final goal.”

Step one towards that goal took place during a spirited opening day in which the offense impressed at times, but the defense shined the brightest with three interception returns for touchdowns in the second practice.

Both coaches addressed the team when the final practice ended. The players then raced off the field and devoured meals prepared by parent volunteers.

In every way possible, this felt like the first day of practice from any other season. And that’s just what these Cardinals needed, as they attempt to turn the page and write a new, happier story this fall.

“It was a great day,” Simon said.

Now, Middleton hopes several more await.


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