Middleton's new era begins

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MTT News's picture
Rob Reischel
Middleton’s offensive line is big, athletic and feisty. From left are Billy Johnson, Taylor Simmons, Clay Craker, Luke McChrystal, Max Lampe and Sam Engler. Not pictured is Zac Mayhew./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

Billy Johnson’s goals were summed up in one quick word.

“Dominate,” Middleton’s all-Big Eight Conference right tackle said.

Clay Craker, the Cardinals’ center, had a similar take.

“We’re going balls to the wall,” Craker said. “The whole group. Our main goal this year is to dominate.”

Middleton, which is coming off a frustrating 6-4 campaign that included a fourth-place finish in the Big Eight Conference, begins its new season at Madison East Friday at 7 p.m. And the Cardinals’ greatest hope for improvement is centered around an offensive line that could be sensational.

Jason Pertzborn, a longtime assistant at MHS who takes over the head coaching duties this year, knows the Cardinals’ path to greatness could come from their ‘Fab Five’ up front and standout running back Kallion Buckner.

“This could be one of the best five we’ve ever put together,” said Pertzborn, who shared the head coaching duties with Tim Simon last year. “That’s my hope.

“Those guys have put in the work. They’ve worked harder than you could imagine. They have a lot of pride.”

They also have a lot of size, skill and athleticism.

The group will feature senior Luke McChrystal (6-0, 263) at left tackle, junior Taylor Simmons (5-11, 220) at left guard, Craker (6-5, 313) at center, senior Zac Mayhew (6-1, 260) at right guard and Johnson (6-4, 276) at right tackle. Top to bottom, the unit averages 6-foot-2 and 264.4 pounds.

Toss in senior tight end Sam Engler (6-3, 210) — a terrific blocker whose father, Derek, played four years with the New York Giants after a stellar career at the University of Wisconsin — and the Cardinals’ offensive line could be downright nasty.

“On paper, it looks great,” Johnson said. “Now, we have to do it on the field.”

Johnson, who’s already committed to play collegiately at Air Force, has an incredibly strong lower body and moves extremely well for his size. He’s hoping to make his final year at MHS his best yet.

“I think at times last year, I was a little tentative,” Johnson said. “This year, I’m not going to care. It’s 100%, no matter what. I’m going as hard as I can all the time.”

Craker was viewed as one of the top linemen in the Class of 2020 during his sophomore season, when he started all season at tackle. Craker suffered an ACL tear during preseason practices last year, though, and missed the entire season.

Today, Craker is both healed and hungry. He’s also in remarkable shape for a man 313 pounds and colleges are once again beginning to take notice.

“I’m kind of back in rhythm and getting the snaps down,” said Craker, who played tackle as a sophomore. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Mayhew moves to left guard after playing left tackle last year. McChrystal slides out to tackle after playing guard last season. And Simmons, the top lineman in the junior class, is lone newcomer to this gifted and experienced group.

“I think we’re going to be great,” Johnson said of the offensive line. “We would have been two, three times better last year with Clay. I’m just glad we’ve got him this year. We’re going to be tough.”

That could mean huge things for senior running back Kallion Buckner.

Buckner, who was named first-team all-Big Eight Conference, has a rare combination of speed and power. Last season, Buckner ran for 1,134 yards, 13 touchdowns and averaged 7.9 yards per carry.

Now, with one of the better offensive lines around, Buckner could have a monster senior year.

“He’s stronger and he’s faster,” Pertzborn said of Buckner. “He put in the work. He’s ready to go out there and take care of business.”

Middleton has far more questions in the passing game.

For now, senior Drew Teff and sophomore TJ Bauer will rotate at quarterback. But Pertzborn admits that’s not his favorite approach and he could eventually settle on one player at that position.

Senior Henry Patterson, a terrific leaper with good hands, will be one wide receiver. Junior Michael Gustafson, who has deceptive speed, is the frontrunner to start opposite of Patterson.

Senior Dante Marino, along with juniors Josh Stormer and George Finch are also in the wide receiver mix.

Engler will be the top tight end, but standout defensive end Jake Wuebben could also see time there.

Pertzborn, who doubles as the offensive coordinator, would love to throw the ball about 40% of the time most years. But with a potentially dominant run game, and a handful of questions in the passing game, Middleton might do most of its damage by ground — at least early on.

“It could work out that way,” Pertzborn said. “That line and Kallion are both really good. But if teams make us pass, we need to be up to the challenge.”

Middleton’s defense is making a major change in scheme.

For the past four decades, the Cardinals ran a 4-3 front under defensive coordinator Tom Cabalka. Cabalka retired after the 2018 season, and new coordinator Brad Rogeberg is moving to a 3-4.

“Most years in that 4-3, our fourth lineman was pretty undersized,” Pertzborn said. “We talked about how to best utilize the personnel we normally have at Middleton, and we just thought this made the most sense. The kids have responded well and they seem ready to go.”

Johnson is the unquestioned leader up front. He was named first-team all-Big Eight Conference after a breakout junior year and will play one of the defensive end spots in Middleton’s base.

Wuebben seems poised for a big senior season and will start at the other defensive end. Massive Jadin Brown (6-5, 335) will start at nose tackle, while McChrystal, Mayhew, Craker, and juniors Michael Parente and Mason Engelien will all see playing up front.

Seniors Ben Litchfield and Jake Pavelski lead the linebacking unit. Senior Quinn Calvin and Cole Yanke are expected to start, as well.

In back, safeties Brian Frusciante and Isaiah Pflasterer-Jennerjohn will lead the defensive backs. Junior Armari Tucker, senior Sawyer Pertzborn and Stormer are the probable top-three corners.

“I have been so impressed with our guys on defense,” Rogeberg said. “They are picking up our new system really fast and they are bringing the juice to each practice. We have great leaders in all three phases of our defense.”

Middleton is also undergoing a change in leadership at the top. And to date, the results have been sublime.

Simon, Middleton’s head coach from 2004-’18, stepped down from that role after last season and will now lead the Cardinals’ special teams. Those units will feature Wuebben, who was a first-team all-conference punter last year, and Sawyer Pertzborn, who was a second-team all-conference kicker.

“We’ve had kind of a committee approach with special teams for years,” Jason Pertzborn said. “But with Tim in charge of that, we should have some of the best special teams in the state.”

Meanwhile, the switch to Jason Pertzborn as head coach has gone swimmingly.

“It’s not dramatic, but it’s definitely noticeable,” Engler said of the coaching change. “It’s been a nice switch. You can definitely feel more energy on a day to day basis.”

Wuebben agreed.

“Things are more upbeat and intense,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Go, go, go’ all the time.”

Now, the Cardinals want to make a move up the conference standings.

Several publications have picked Middleton to finish fourth in the league, behind defending champion Sun Prairie, Madison Memorial and Verona. The Cardinals have seen those prognostications — and simply chuckled.

“Let ‘em pick us fourth. We love that,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be fun to go on a run.

This year, we just need to play our hearts out and we can beat any team.”

Engler agreed.

“We should definitely be at the top,” Engler said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re showing the younger guys it’s not given, it’s earned.”

Middleton has reached the postseason 23 straight years, which is tied for the longest streak in Division 1 with Hartland Arrowhead. In that time, though, the Cardinals have reached Level 3 of the playoffs — the Elite Eight — just six times.

Since Pertzborn was named coach-in-waiting during the summer of 2018, he’s talked about making Middleton one of the state’s elite teams once again. And these Cardinals can’t wait to pursue that goal.

“We can be way better than great,” Craker said. “The whole team is connected. We’re definitely a brotherhood. I’m expecting us to have a great season.”

Wuebben agreed.

“We’ve worked our butts off to put us over the top,” Wuebben said. “We definitely want to build a legacy and be the team that gets it started for coach Pertzborn.”

Let the games begin.


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