When assessing his team’s next playoff opponent, Newman football coach Mike Papoccia gave Wilmington the highest compliment he could.
In a span of five sentences, Papoccia mentioned his team’s chief rival, Morrison, three times.
“We have a chance to go farther than we ever have in 3A, but we’ve got a pretty formidable team in front of us,” Papoccia said. “They remind me a lot of Morrison. They run a lot of Wing-T-type stuff, although I think they run outside a little more than Morrison does.
“Their defense is every bit as tough as Morrison’s, and they’ve always given us trouble. We’ll have our hands full.”
Wilmington (9-2) ran the table in the Interstate Eight (Small) Conference, and its losses were by a combined five points to a pair of Class 4A playoff teams, Coal City and Plano.
Leading the way for the Wildcats is halfback Mike Wolfe, who has 138 carries for 1,091 yards and 11 touchdowns. Fullback Chris Tworek has added 992 yards on 150 attempts, with 14 touchdowns.
Wilmington has also been effective through the air. Quarterback Sean Liaromatis has completed 59 of 113 passes for 1,021 yards, with 13 TDs and just two interceptions. Wolfe and wide receiver Dan O’Leary each have 14 receptions for a combined 474 yards and eight TDs.
The Wildcats have averaged 34.1 points per game, while allowing just 8.4. Newman, meanwhile, has scored 30.3 points per game while also allowing 8.4 per game.
A week ago, Newman (11-0) for the most part bottled up a prolific Monmouth-Roseville attack led by shifty halfback Martell Hunter, who had just 72 yards after entering the game with more than 1,600.
“We’ve played great defense all year,” Papoccia said, “and I think in the playoffs, we’ve even been getting better at it. The kids have been up to the challenge. We’ve been playing physical, we’ve been tackling very well and we’ve got a lot of kids to the ball. That’s the key to playing good defense.”
When the Comets have the ball, they’ll try to forge ahead against a team as stingy as they come, led by a 6-foot-3, 281-pound force in the middle in defensive tackle Derrick Romano. The Wildcats have given up just 22 playoff points against two Class 3A powers, Byron and St. Joseph-Ogden.
“They’re probably one of the most aggressive teams we’ll see all year,” Newman running back/linebacker Brian Bahrs said. “We’ve gone through a couple of teams that are aggressive, but these guys are really physical. I think we’re going to have to go to some passing to relieve some of the pressure.”
This marks the Comets’ third time in the Class 3A playoffs, and the second time that path has taken them through Wilmington. In 2008, Newman dropped a 6-0 decision at Wilmington, with the only score of that game coming on a blocked punt return.
Newman finished 8-3 that season, while Wilmington wound up 11-1 after losing at Oregon in the 3A quarterfinals.
“Our kids left it on the field,” Papoccia said of the 2008 meeting between Newman and Wilmington. “I mentioned to this team [Monday] I just want them to play like that. I was never so proud of a team. They ended the season on a high note, even though we got beat. This year, if we can eliminate mistakes, who knows what could happen?”
Newman at Wilmington
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Wilmington H.S.
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