St. Mary Catholic begins 8-player football program

NEENAH — The start of the school year brings a new season on the gridiron and changes are many for the St. Mary Catholic football program.

The team has transitioned from 11-player to 8-player, Jeremy Clifton moved back to Wisconsin to lead the program, and the Zephyrs now sport the same gold helmets worn by the Packers, to name a few.

St. Mary Catholic football coach Jeremy Clifton oversees a drill where players jump before blocking a sled dummy during a July 15 practice at the Neenah school. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

The change to 8-player presents some challenges. Some players saw it as a demotion, said Clifton. Others were immediately supportive.

“I heard talk about it for a while and when the news finally broke, it was a happy relief,” said junior quarterback/safety SamPurcell. “The school was in dire need of a change in any way, and this may be the change that propels this team into a winning atmosphere.”

There are now 57 8-player programs in the state of Wisconsin, including Lena/St. Thomas Aquinas (Marinette), which is now in its sixth season of the format. Teams obviously play with three fewer players, but those positions removed from the field can change. Five players must be on the line at the snap and the outer player on both sides is pass-eligible.

“Mike Kudick, our defensive coordinator, and I are really competitive. So we go back and forth giving each other different looks. They see us compete, which gets them going. We want to play fast,” he said. “If another team beats us on their best day and on our best day, then I can live with that. We talk about the three controllables: attitude, effort and preparation.”

The schedule is tough, including some long road trips, according to Clifton. The team didn’t scrimmage another program and doesn’t have film on opponents, so he expects some early season growing pains. The team opened the season with a 54-26 loss at Wisconsin Heights on Aug. 23. Clifton hopes that by week four the team has “everything figured out.” The Zephyrs are not playoff eligible this season.

The most important change, according to Clifton, who holds a Ph.D. from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and formerly coached football and track at Mount St. Mary High School in Oklahoma City, Okla., is “the culture and the perception of our program.” The team won a total of eight games over the last five seasons.

“I’m constantly listening to podcasts trying to improve myself as a coach,” he said. “Some of the top college coaches don’t ever talk about winning. I started to really dive into what they say to their guys, reading the books that they read, listening to the seminars and the podcasts. We talk about winning the drill. In practice, we are all drill-orientated. We get the players to focus on the process.

“I’m trying to drive home to them that it shouldn’t matter who you are playing,” he added. “It shouldn’t matter where you are playing. It shouldn’t matter the score. You play with 100% intensity and success on Friday is earned Sunday through Thursday. You truly will play like you practice.”

The culture change began with a new summer workout program. Clifton installed training methods from track and field to improve the strength and speed of the athletes.

“When you are running and lifting right, there is a lesser chance of injury,” said Purcell. “We would skip and jump through hurdles in the morning, then run hills and following that would be lifting.”

Improving physically is only part of the culture. Clifton and the coaching staff have set rules to promote a more positive attitude on the field.

“They are not allowed to say ‘can’t’ and they are not allowed to say ‘try,’” explained Clifton, who lived in Germantown, Wis., for a number of years before spending his senior year at Adams-Friendship High School. “When they have a negative thought, they replace it with a positive. When they see someone fall, they pick them up. We are trying to get them to understand that their success and failure is a result of choices.”

The St. Mary Catholic Middle School football team, which continues to play 11-player, runs the same system as the varsity team this season in terms of language and technique to help grow the program for the future. The varsity coaches have assisted at middle school practices. The Zephyrs do not have a junior varsity this year. If the number of players grows, St. Mary Catholic may return to 11-player in the future.

“Our varsity team is so young,” said Clifton. “We have three potential freshman starters on both sides of the ball. Given the newness, we decided we would not play JV this year.”

Off the field, the coaching staff has stressed the need for the players to be role models. Clifton plans to have a grade point average competition between two teams within the roster. A supervised study table will be implemented for those players who need assistance with academics.

“I want teachers to be excited that they have football players in class,” said Clifton. “If you see someone getting bullied, I want you to step in. If you see someone who is eating lunch alone, I want you to go sit with that student.

“We emphasize doing good deeds when no one can repay you,” he added. “That’s from a John Wooden quote. Have hearts of gratitude. On the field, I want you to smack them hard and then pick them up.”

Clifton and his wife Heather have two children, Madyson and Alex. Moving to the state brings them closer to family members. Clifton said he wanted to continue to coach at a Catholic school.

“We can pray and don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “They are going to learn about care, compassion, virtue, respect and love. You can be overt with those here. These boys and girls have big hearts and they can express that here through God, through worship. Jesus’ example to me is supremely important.”

“We work together as a team and we bond by pushing each other to be our best,” said junior linebacker/guard Ethan Collins. “We know how we need to prepare for Friday nights by using our talents to help our teammates be successful.”