There’s a reason the Newman Comets have been so successful the past three decades despite a lack of all-state running backs year in and year out: the holes those backs are running through.
Last year was no different, as a solid corps of runners playing behind a strong offensive line led Mike Papoccia to his fourth state championship. This year, even with the loss of several seniors from that 14-0 state title team, the Comets have barely missed a beat.
Again, it’s all thanks to the big boys up front.
Three of the five guys who start in the trenches on both sides of the ball were starters a season ago, and the other two played significant roles in many of Newman’s lopsided victories.
Seniors Jake Walls, Nate Ackert, Tim Downie and R.J. Troye and junior Danny Trygstad man the offensive line, while Troye, Ackert and Trygstad hold down the fort up front on defense; Walls also rotates in on that side of the ball.
For three of the seniors, they are making a huge impact for the second straight season, as well as welcoming in Downie and Trygstad to round out another strong quintet up front.
“It’s a lot easier with so many of us having played together before,” Ackert said. “Each of us knows what we have to do, and we always trust the guys next to us to do their jobs, too. All five of us have been there before, and we know what it takes to get the job done.”
Ackert and Walls started on the right side of the offensive line as juniors in 2010, while Troye played defensive end; Downie and Trygstad got plenty of mop-up duty through the Comets’ playoff run. None of Newman’s returning linemen played both ways, a key to staying strong throughout four quarters every Friday night or Saturday afternoon.
This year is a bit different, with only Downie not playing on both sides of the ball – but that hasn’t bothered these big boys at all.
“I love it, because you feel more into it and don’t have to watch from the sideline,” Troye said. “The best part is being out there with your teammates, making things happen on both offense and defense, and being a vocal leader and inspiring my teammates on the field the whole game.”
Continuity has been a big factor in the lines’ continued success, but the ease with which the new guys have stepped in and meshed with the veterans has also played a part.
“They’re big footsteps, big shoes to fill,” Downie said, “but we’ve been playing together since sixth grade, so it feels like a team no matter who’s in there. It definitely feels good to be out there doing it, instead of watching from the sideline.”
As quick as Newman’s running backs have always been to give credit to their linemen, the Comets’ blockers are happy to point the finger right back at the runners. Without the line, there are no holes; without backs who hit the holes, the offense doesn’t move.
“It’s very nice to have guys back there who run hard all the time,” said Walls. “Even with or without holes, they’re going to run into you from behind, and you’d rather have them running into daylight than up your back.”
The next challenge for the Comets is Clifton Central in the first round of the Class 2A playoffs on Saturday afternoon at Hinder Field in Rock Falls. It’s another chance for Newman’s lines to control the point of attack and lead the way to another big-game victory.
“I always tell the linemen that they’re the difference-makers for us,” Papoccia said. “Last year, they took off in the playoffs, and we expected those guys to be a big part of our success again this season. They’ve done a good job with that, and it’s why we’re where we are today.”
Class 2A playoffs
Clifton Central (5-4) at Newman (8-1)
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Hinders Field, Rock Falls
Radio: WZZT-FM (102.7)