It came down to the last quarter of the last game of the regular season, but after a two-year hiatus, the Wausau Newman Catholic football team is back in the playoffs.
The Cardinals, thanks in large part to a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions, rallied from an early third-quarter deficit to defeat Wisconsin Rapids Assumption, 28-21, in their Cloverwood Conference finale Friday night at Stiehm Stadium.
The victory improved Newman’s record to 5-4 on the season while Assumption finished its season at 1-8.
“I was hoping (it would be easier), but it was not expected,” Newman coach Paul Michlig said. “They are very well-coached and came out and played hard and played better than us in the first half.”
After a 1-yard quarterback sneak on the opening drive put Newman ahead, the Royals came back to take a 14-7 lead on a 3-yard touchdown run by Andy Eichinger and a 15-yard touchdown run by Kolt Linzmeier.
Newman tied the game on the first of three touchdown runs by Justin Damask with 1:41 to play in the first half.
But a 61-yard touchdown run by Brady Baltus on the first play from scrimmage in the second half put the Royals back on top, 21-14.
“We knew he was going to be trouble,” Michlig said of Baltus, who rushed for 234 yards and pair of touchdowns last week against McDonell Central. “Two weeks ago, he was the quarterback, last week was the first time he was at fullback, so we knew he would play fullback tonight.”
Baltus would finish with a game-high 135 yards rushing, but the 61-yard scoring jaunt would be his only touchdown of the game. It would also be Assumption’s last score of the contest.
Newman tied the game in the final minute of the third quarter on Damask’s 4-yard run.
An interception and 32-yard return by Josh Watson on Assumption’s ensuing possession set up the game-winning score on a 2-yard run by Damask with 7:47 to play.
After a pair of punts, Newman’s Marcus Gabriel helped seal the victory with an interception that allowed the Cardinals to run the clock down to 20 seconds.
“That’s us making plays,” Michlig said of the interceptions. “I thought they made plays in the first half and we made plays in the second half. The last 23:30 (of the second half), we played fairly well defensively and that was the difference.”
Gabriel finished with seven receptions for 113 yards despite a bad ankle while quarterback Eric Bychinski, who sat out practices earlier in the week due to injury, led the Cardinals in rushing with 88 yards on 18 carries.
Despite missing the playoffs the last two seasons, it will be Newman’s fourth postseason berth in the last six years.
“Making the playoffs is not just about this year’s team, but the teams before that put us in this situation,” Michlig said. “I’m proud for the whole program in general.”