Clinton's football surge a decade in the making
For those on the outside looking in, Clinton High's emergence as a football powerhouse came as a bit of a sudden surprise.
The Cougars won 18 games in the course of 10 seasons between 2003 and 2012. But after winning their WIAA Division 5 first-round playoff game Friday night, they've won 21 of their last 22 games and are favored to at least match last year's run to the state semifinals.
To a group of 16 seniors and two of their fathers, though, the process in going from also-ran to state title contender has been a decade in the making.
Lineman Eric Paschke, running back/linebacker Connor Mullooly and the rest of their senior teammates have been coached by Joe Paschke and Pat Mullooly nearly every step of the way since third grade.
“We thought we had a group of very good athletes from a young age,” Pat Mullooly said after a practice this week before Clinton's 42-3 victory over visiting Brookfield Academy. “We had them split into two groups, and we always thought once we had a chance to get them together, they could be pretty special.”
In fact, Eric and Connor began playing against one another.Even in grade school, the class of football players was big enough to be split into two teams, and the coaches essentially held a draft so the two teams were very similar in skill level.
They played in a league in Beloit, but they're most memorable games always seemed to come when the two Clinton teams played each other.
They squared off four or five times before the players reached an age where they all began playing together.
“I think one time they won by two or three points, the other time we won by two or three points, and the rest were ties,” Eric Paschke said.
Asked what inspired the young players at a time when the Clinton high school teams that they could look up to were plagued by one- and two-win seasons, both Eric and Connor pointed to their fathers.
Joe, who played at Beloit College, and Pat preached fundamentals from an early age. Eric joked—or perhaps half-joked—that he was working on his footwork when he first put pads on when he was 2 years old.
Need some proof that those efforts are still paying off in 2017?
For the second consecutive year, Clinton leads the entire state, regardless of division, in rushing. Through nine games, the Cougars entered the playoffs with 3,797 yards, 456 more than Gale-Ettrick-Trempeleau, which was second in the state.
Clinton's biggest offensive lineman paving the way? Senior Clayton Hahn is listed at 6-foot, 235 pounds.
“We're pretty proud of our little guys,” said Joe Paschke, whose work as a volunteer assistant comes mostly with the defense line, while Mullooly works with the offensive line.
“We love to play fast,” Eric Paschke said. “The first quarter, we might come out and teams can be a lot bigger, stronger than us. Over the course of the game, we have to wear them down.”
To describe Clinton's recent success as the flip of a switch would not be fair. After not winning more than three games in any season for a decade-plus, the Cougars won six in 2013 and 2014 and five in 2015, making the playoffs all three years.
In 2015, Clinton went 5-5 overall and was 4-2 in the Rock Valley South, capturing a share of its first-ever conference championship. It was a bit of a breakthrough, but the Cougars lost in the first round of the playoffs, and this year's seniors—many of them playing then as sophomores—saw that as motivation.
“We knew right then that we needed to step it up,” said Connor Mullooly, a first-team all-conference linebacker last year when Clinton lost its season opener then won 11 straight games before falling to Cedar Grove-Belgium in the D5 state semis.
Even then, after that memorable run, it was easy to wonder if such success would be a bit of a flash in the pan.
Clinton rushed for 4,774 yards and 54 touchdowns. But more than 54 percent of those yards and 26 of the touchdowns came from Peyton Pope and Jordan Jones, who graduated at the school year's end.
“That was a great senior class, but we knew there were some of us juniors that were really talented but just weren't getting the touches,” Connor Mullooly said. “You just look at Zach (Krause), he only had like 80 touches last year. Now he's over 2,000 yards.”
Indeed, after carrying 74 times for 737 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior, Krause leads the state in rushing, entering Friday's game with a per-game average of nearly 227 yards.
Fellow senior Tyler Halsted is in his third season calling the shots at quarterback. He missed two full games and the better part of a third due to injury but has nearly 700 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.
Mullooly directs the defense and leads the team with 91 tackles. Fellow senior Steve Espinoza is second, and he, Paschke and senior Colin Warpula lead the way in sacks.
Paschke, Hahn and senior Kenny Ballmer anchor the offensive line.
It's been 10 years since this senior class, and some of their fathers, began the buildup to today.
“It's just been an honor to be a part of it,” Joe Paschke said. “We're not with them year-round, but you see them around and we've watched them grow up. It's been special.”
And if the Cougars have it their way, that journey will end within the confines of Camp Randall Stadium.