BURLINGTON — Tom Aldrich has never been about himself or numbers.
Ask him about his days as a star running back at Catholic Central High School (then known at Burlington St. Mary’s) from 1975-77 and he’ll steer you in a different direction.
Ask him about the 180 games and two state championships he’s won as Catholic Central’s coach since 1992 and he’ll likely respond that it’s all been about the kids.
As for when he was named the Associated Press’ Coach of the Year in Wisconsin in 2009, don’t even go there. Aldrich probably doesn’t even remember that honor.
What he’s believed during these last 25 years is simple: Teach his players the proper values, such as teamwork and being accountable to each other and all that other stuff — the victories, championships and success after high school — will take care of itself.
It’s a formula that certainly worked from 1997 through 2015, when the Hilltoppers had 19 straight winning seasons, advanced to the playoffs each of those seasons, won WIAA Division 7 state championships in 2008 and ‘09 and were runners-up in 2004 and ‘10.
As recently as 2015, Catholic Central went 12-1 and played in the state semifinals behind running back Cole Kresken, the All-Racine County Player of the Year that season.
But it’s been a real struggle the last two seasons. After slipping to 1-8 last season, the Hilltoppers are 0-4 and have been outscored 153-29. Players have been getting injured on a roster that numbers just 25 and what seemed so automatic before has been such a struggle.
Through it all, Aldrich has retained his positive outlook, as difficult as that has been.
“It’s just another season,” he said. “Every year, the cards are a little bit different and you’ve just got to deal with it. You put your best foot forward and see what you can do. You can’t let it get you down because every team goes through it to some degree. It is what it is.”
But even Aldrich’s optimism has been tested. Take last Friday night, when standout quarterback-linebacker Chad Zirbel returned from an injury he suffered just before the regular season. Before he even attempted a pass, Zirbel was re-injured and had to leave the game.
On top of that, other players on this already thin roster have suffered injuries of varying degrees, including running back-linebacker Frank Koehnke, linemen Chas Miles and Manny Jaimes, receiver-defensive back Cade Dirksmeyer, running back Paul Nevin and David Doerflinger, Zirbel’s replacement at quarterback.
Through it all, the general mood among the Hilltoppers has remained positive. One lesson football teaches is weathering adversity and Catholic Central’s three captains — Zirbel, Luke Sassano and Tyler Shaw — believe the team has been receiving a valuable education.
For Sassano, it’s all about not getting caught up in self pity.
“Last week, I put a motto into the guys that we should think about every game and that’s to hit back,” he said. “We get hit with injuries, we get hit with losing, we get hit on plays and it depends on if you hit back. That’s our motto for the year.”
Shaw, whose father and grandfather played in the program, believes that the hard knocks the players are going through will serve them well when they move on from Catholic Central.
“It’s pretty tough because everyone’s going down,” he said. “But everyone keeps coming back and everyone wants to be back. No one wants to be sitting out right now. I think the injuries will help us later in life with mental toughness and not quitting on certain things.”
And for Zirbel, it’s been about continuing to seek some elusive reward.
“We want to finish out the season strong,” he said. “We improve every single week and you can see that. You can see in practice that the guys are giving it their all and, in the end, I think we can come out on top.”
But what about the future of football, not only at Catholic Central but other high schools nationwide, as the effects of football-related head trauma become more known? Zirbel said he knows of classmates who aren’t playing because of their parents’ concern and concedes the sport’s future is cloudy.
“Concussions are becoming a huge problem in football, as we’re finding out,” he said.
Ask Aldrich and he’ll tell you he has as much faith in football as he ever has.
“I think the game is safer then ever,” he said, “and I think you have to ask yourself, ‘Do the positive values that come out of the great game of football outweigh those potential injuries?’
“In my belief, and, obviously, I’m biased, I think yes.”
His players seem to agree, even if victories are harder to come by these days. And this program has bounced back before. Aldrich endured back-to-back 0-9 seasons in 1993 and ‘94 only to take the program to unprecedented heights.
Can it happen again? That remains to be seen, but the spirit seems to be as alive as ever.
“I love being around the guys,” Zirbel. “You get to become like brothers because you work through everything with each other.”