Madison Abundant Life/St. Ambrose Academy (Madison) - Great 8 (8-player)
Coach: Chad Henning (1st year)
2016 Result: 9-0 (6-0), 1st in the Great 8 South; Won 8-Man Jamboree game
Three-Year Record: 23-6
2016 All-Conference Honors: 5 First-Team, 3 Second-Team
Three-Year All-Conference Totals: 16 First-Team, 10 Second-Team (26 total)
Returning All-Conference Players: QB/P Mike Rhatican, Jr. (1st Team-QB; 2nd Team, 2015) [WSN Offensive Player of the Year Finalist] [WFCA Honorable Mention All-State], OL Ashlen Chapin, Sr. (1st Team; 2nd Team, 2015)
Other Players To Watch: WR/RB/CB Steven Manke, Jr.; LB Andrew Galvin, Fr.
BIG Games: at Wisconsin Heights, September 9, 1pm; vs Oakfield, September 30; (TBD) 8-Man Jamboree, October 28
Despite losing WFCA All-State running back Obi Iwuagwu, who also won the WisSports.net 8-man Offensive Player of the Year award, the Challengers of Madison Abundant Life/St. Ambrose Academy are poised for another big year in 2017.
"Obi had an amazing career for us," said new Challengers head football coach Chad Henning, who served as the team's defensive coordinator last season, and who has coached for two years with the Challengers. "He was a game changer to say the least, a player that had the ability to score every time he touched the ball. He really was a man among boys."
"You can look at a guy like Obi [Iwuagwu] or a guy like Gabe Lloyd from N.E.W. Lutheran who plays for the Badgers... You will find talent no matter where you go. I hope people see this game, even though we only have eight on the field, can produce amazing athletes." - Challengers Coach Chad Henning
With Iwuagwu off to Davenport University to run track, the continued success of the program now falls on to the shoulders of junior quarterback Mike Rhatican, who was named WFCA Honorable Mention All-State as a sophomore, and the rest of the returning Challengers for the upcoming 2017 season.
"Mike Rhatican is a special athlete. He's been a starter since he was a freshman, and has made strides every year. He also has been working hard in the offseason," said Henning.
"If you don't know the name Mike Rhatican now, it won't take long to hear about him. He is fun to watch."
Far from a one-man show are the Challengers. Another first-team all-conference pick, Ashlen Chapin, is also back to anchor the lines.
"He has really been working hard in the off season. We look forward to seeing that translate over to the football field," said Henning.
With much of the offense centered around Obi Iwuagwu, the Challengers were able to go undefeated in 2016, the only program among the 23 Wisconsin high schools sponsoring 8-man football to do so. Abundant Life/St. Ambrose capped off 2016 with a thrilling overtime victory in the 8-Man Jamboree over Prairie Farm.
Reflecting on 2016, Coach Henning said, "Last year was a heck of a ride. We had a great group of seniors that left their mark in the program."
Work now begins on replacing the production of Iwuagwu and WFCA Honorable Mention All-State linebacker Will Donohoe, and one of the players Coach Henning is counting on is junior Steve Manke, who Henning calls a "big playmaker." Manke started at cornerback last season, and spelled Iwuagwu at running back. Another player to watch, says Henning, is incoming freshman Andrew Galvin, whose older brother, Ben, was a senior on the 2016 team.
"Our coaching staff is very excited about the upcoming year, even after losing a good bulk of our leadership and experience," said Henning. "We return some keys pieces that will help us to hopefully repeat as conference champions."
Henning also believes the quality of football at the 8-man level is as good as any other form of football.
"I think you can look at a guy like Obi or a guy like Gabe Lloyd from N.E.W. Lutheran who plays for the Badgers, and you can see the talent that is at all levels. You will find talent no matter where you go. I hope people see this game, even though we only have eight on the field, can produce amazing athletes."
After winning the Great 8 South in 2016, the Challengers will play in the revamped Great 8 in 2017. The new conference will include teams from the old Great 8 South. The teams in the Great 8 will also play some independent 8-player teams in northern Illinois.
"I am excited to get a little but more of a mixture of teams. And, [it] actually helps on some of the longer travel we have had to do in the past."
The Challengers schedule includes conference games against Wisconsin Heights and Jamboree participant Oakfield, on September 9 and September 30, respectively. The Jamboree itself is on October 28, and if things play out as they did last year for the most part, expect Abundant Life/St. Ambrose to once again be a part of the final year of the current Jamboree setup.
Next year, the WIAA will sponsor an 8-team tournament for 8-man football.
The Challengers are expected to be one of the top teams in 8-player football again next season, including in the Great 8. Oakfield also participated in the Jamboree last season.
[Ed. Note: A previous version of this article referred to the 'State Line Conference'. Rather than a true inter-state conference, 8-player teams from Wisconsin and Illinois will play each other in a loose association as 8-player football continues to grow in both states.]