BURLINGTON — As Frank Koehnke sat in the bleachers every weekend last fall and watched his friends suffer through such a long season, he wanted to be out there with them.
The Catholic Central High School football team, one year removed from appearing in the WIAA Division 7 state semifinals, slumped to a 1-8 record. It marked the first year since 1996 that the Hilltoppers finished below .500 and the first time since 1995 that they didn’t advance to the playoffs.
Koehnke, a basketball and baseball standout at the school, longed to do his part to re-energize Catholic Central’s rich tradition. So for the first time since he was in the third grade, he is going to lace on a pair of shoulder pads and cleats and get out there with his friends.
“I came out this year because I knew I would regret it if I didn’t,” said Koehnke, who will likely be a running back and linebacker. “I want to help my team out a lot.”
What impact Koehnke makes remains to be seen after being out of football for so long. But the decision he made exemplifies what longtime coach Tom Aldrich has long preached to his players — that everyone should step up for a common cause. Charles Robinson, another senior, is also committing to football for the first time.
Leading Catholic Central offensively and defensively will be quarterback-linebacker Chad Zirbel. The senior passed for 720 yards and seven touchdowns and rushed for 573 yards and nine scores. As a linebacker, he dominated on a defense that was designed for him to make a large number of tackles.
“He’s coming to camp in tremendous shape and he’s a very good athlete,” Aldrich said. “He runs hard and what we’ve noticed is he’s a lot more accurate with his throwing. So, hopefully, that adds a wrinkle to things.”
With Aldrich deciding to switch to a more option-based offense this season, Zirbel feels a 22-man roster than features just three players who weigh at least 200 pounds will be better served.
“If you look at our lineup, we’re not the biggest guys,” Zirbel said. “This offense definitely helps because we’re faster and athletic. This offense will do well for us.”
Also working in Catholic Central’s favor is that Zirbel will be working behind four returning starters on the offensive line — Chas Miles, Luke Sassano, Tyler Shaw and Simon Pedone.
But what remains to be seen is what playmakers will step up around Zirbel after the graduation of running back Aaron Rueber and receiver Cole Pankau. Aldrich likes what he’s seen from Paul Nevin, a sophomore running back, and Koehnke.
“He’s jumping out just because of his athleticism,” Aldrich said of Koehnke. “He’s got to get some rust off, but he’s going to help us on both sides of the ball.”
Aldrich is also making a major switch on defense. After playing a “radar” defense, which usually featured eight players near the line of scrimmage, the Hilltoppers are switching to a more traditional 4-3 defense with multiple fronts.
Zirbel will also be the centerpiece on that defense. He will be joined by Pedone, Miles, Sassano, Shaw and Doug Januszewski, all linemen, as returning starters.
“The multiple fronts out of the 4-3 give us the chance to try and see a matchup problem that we can exploit with our personnel,” Aldrich said. “We feel this gives our kids the best chance to succeed.”
How well can the Hilltoppers succeed?
“Catholic Central has had a lot of success and we learned that sometimes it benefits to lose and maybe start a new streak,” Zirbel said. “Now we can go back on the winning end.”