Newman first year head coach Brandon Kreczmer lead the Comets to a state title.
Newman first year head coach Brandon Kreczmer lead the Comets to a state title. — Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com

In many ways, Brandon Kreczmer was put in an incredibly difficult situation for the 2019 football season.

He had been an assistant coach at Newman for 6 years – 3 coaching linebackers and as the fresh-soph team’s defensive coordinator, then 3 more as the varsity defensive coordinator. Those varsity teams had been wildly successful, with a combined 66-8 record and one state championship, in 2013, during that span.

The 2018 Comets finished 10-2, after a Class 2A quarterfinal loss to Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley. That would be the last game coached at Newman by Mike Papoccia, who guided the Comets to a 340-99 record and five state titles in 39 years as head coach. In early December, he officially announced his retirement as head football coach, though he’d remain as athletic director.

A program widely known for little turnover in its coaching staff, Newman was expected to hire from within. The only question was who.

That answer came in late February, when Kreczmer was hired by a seven-member panel to be Newman’s new head football coach. He was selected ahead of some coaches who had been in the program longer than he had – a potentially dicey situation.

Lose a few games on top of that, and doubt could creep in, the fan base could get restless, and a program that is annually seen as dominant could be vulnerable.

“It’s not going to be easy, and you’re never going to replace a legend,” Kreczmer said in a Sauk Valley Media article about his hiring. “You just have to hope to build on that foundation.”

Since then, Kreczmer, 31, has come up aces. One of his first acts was to meet with the coaching staff, to bring back as many coaches as possible. There were few changes.

Offseason and preseason operations and traditions would largely remain the same. It’s just that Papoccia was not going to be around as much, directing team activities.

“The foundation was laid, and I think anyone could have kind of stepped in,” Kreczmer said. “It’s not like they had to rebuild the program or anything like that. The traditions that Mike laid is what makes this place special. There wasn’t much that needed to be changed. I just added some things here or there.

“I was here long enough where I knew the kids and I had a great relationship. Luckily most of the coaching staff stayed on board. It made the transition pretty easy.”

In the end, it was a dream transition. The day after Thanksgiving, Newman celebrated on the turf at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, fresh off a 35-14 win against Nashville in the Class 2A state championship game. Kreczmer got a Gatorade bath from his players. It was the Comets’ sixth state title in program history.

On Tuesday, Kreczmer was asked if the Comets had greatness in them prior to the 2019 season.

“I knew that we could be pretty good, but I wasn’t sure we would win a state title,” said Kreczmer, the 2019 Sauk Valley Media Coach of the Year. “There were a lot of question marks going into the season, with Coach Papoccia retiring, a new head coach coming in, and we lost a lot of really good football players from last year. Everything had to come together just right. It did.”

The season

The Comets faced their share of adversity in an 8-1 regular season, starting with a 25-21 win against Princeton in Week 2. The Tigers, who would go on to give Class 3A runner-up Byron a run for its money in the Class 3A semifinals, owned a 21-10 halftime lead on Newman. Princeton scored a touchdown 5.3 seconds before the break on a 40-yard TD pass to all-state running back Ronde Worrels.

That could have led to a halftime eruption from Kreczmer. Instead, the exact opposite happened.

“I really knew how good of a coach he was going to be after that Princeton win,” junior quarterback Jacob Ackman said. “You can tell a lot about a coach from their body language. When we were down at half, I was expecting him to come in ticked off, head down, like, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ All he said was, ‘We got this. We’re two scores away.’ To have a coach that’s always looking at the positive side of things, that’s huge.”

For Kreczmer, he didn’t see anything from his guys the first 24 minutes of play against Princeton that wasn’t correctable.

“It’s nothing that we weren’t doing,” Kreczmer said. “We just weren’t reading our keys. We weren’t taking care of our responsibilities. To come back and hold Princeton scoreless in the second half, and win that one 25-21, that gave us a lot of confidence, even though the next couple of weeks we didn’t necessarily play the best. They knew they had some potential, and we needed to get it out of them.”

Indeed, the next 3 weeks, Newman had its share of problems. In Week 3, the Comets gave up a season-high 26 points in a 27-26 road win against Kewanee.

After a rout of Bureau Valley, Newman suffered its lone defeat, an 18-6 home loss against Morrison. Two big plays from the Mustangs’ Keegan Anderson were the difference in the game, and the Comets’ season was potentially at a crossroads.

Kreczmer and his coaching staff had a meeting with the players shortly afterward. He described it as a “heart-to-heart” meeting.

“We just looked at them in the eyes and said, ‘Is this how you want the season to go?’” Kreczmer said. “After that, the kids really seemed to lock in. There were things we needed to work on, and the kids realized that. They came to practice ready to go to work, and really started focusing in on the things we had to get better at, and started working harder.”

Wins against Rockridge, Orion, Riverdale and Fulton by a combined score of 95-28 the next 4 weeks followed, and the Comets were ready for the playoffs.

The playoffs

Entering the postseason, Newman has traditionally had a coach give an impassioned speech about the team stepping up its game, or perhaps bring in a guest speaker to deliver that message. This year, however, captains Connor McBride, Riley Wescott and Andrew Wilson asked to speak to the team.

“They set their goals to make it to state and win a state championship,” Kreczmer said. “From that point on, we just became a family. I wish I knew exactly what it was so I could bottle it up for the next several years. They wanted to be around each other more and more, and they just didn’t want this ride to end. We always talk about it’s not the trophy or anything, it’s about the journey. The journey that they just went on was unbelievable.”

That journey started with a second win against Orion, this one by a 28-13 margin; the Comets had defeated the Chargers 28-6 in the regular season.

Round 2 of the playoffs was a satisfying 21-6 victory against Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, the team that had eliminated Newman from the previous two postseasons.

In the quarterfinals, the Comets went on the road and dominated Knoxville 28-0. The Blue Bullets entered the game 11-0 and had outscored its opponents 473-84.

Newman punched its ticket to state after a 21-7 victory against Fieldcrest, a team that was also dominant through 12 games. The Knights had outscored their first 12 foes 408-99 before encountering the Comets.

The mission was completed with a 35-14 victory against Nashville in the 2A championship game.

It was a game that was symbolic of the 13 that preceded it in that Ackman, the junior quarterback, did not throw a lot, but when he did, he was highly effective. Ackman completed 3 of 5 passes against Nashville for 112 yards, including TD passes of 60 and 39 yards to McBride.

Ackman finished with 1,025 passing yards this season. He completed 54 of 94 passes, with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions, and to hear him explain his success, he had the easy part.

“A big thank you goes to our coaches and our line,” Ackman said. “If we weren’t able to execute those run plays, there’s no way we’d be able to do those play-actions. Coach K had a lot of confidence in us – not just me, but us – that we had receivers that could catch the ball, a line that could block, and backs that could carry out the fakes.

“I think a lot of it was due to our line and our backs, and [offensive coordinator Jim] Nieman called great games.”

Kreczmer had a defensive background as a player and as an assistant coach, so he was happy to let Nieman, a first-year offensive coordinator, take the lead on that side of the ball. At games, Nieman would sit next to Papoccia, and together they’d probe for ways to attack a defense, and not just on the ground.

McBride (18 catches, 412 yards, 7 TDs), primarily a running back, was effective lining up outside, while Wilson (22 catches, 395 yards, 6 TDs) provided an imposing target at tight end.

“Obviously we threw the ball a little bit more this year,” Kreczmer said. “Part of it was because we had to at some points, but I wanted to do it because we wanted to. We thought we had athletes that we wanted to get the ball to in space, and the kids were very accepting of that.”

The influences

Kreczmer cited three coaches and his family as having the biggest influence on his coaching career.

At Chicago St. Patrick High School, where he graduated in 2006, his head coach was Dan Galante. Kreczmer was a two-year varsity starter for the Shamrocks, and was voted his team’s defensive lineman of the year as a senior. It was Galante helping Kreczmer develop on and off the field.

“He just had a big influence on me,” Kreczmer said. “He’s a great coach, but even a better person. He really had a big impact on me, and I knew from playing in high school for him that I wanted to get into coaching.”

The next coach Kreczmer mentioned was Don Patterson, his head coach at Western Illinois University. Kreczmer started 2½ seasons for the Leathernecks at linebacker, was honorable mention all-conference as a senior, and was a two-time winner of the Red Miller award, given to a team member who is a role model of passion, energy and spirit.

It was Patterson pushing Kreczmer in that direction.

“He just exemplifies what being a great football coach, but even a better role model, is for kids,” Kreczmer said.

Finally, there was Papoccia, the coach he replaced as the man in charge of Newman football. Kreczmer had 6 years to learn about the Comets’ program before taking it over, and winning games, he stressed, is down the list of things to be accomplished.

“To see that it’s really not about the wins and the losses, but it’s really about having an impact on these young men’s lives, and seeing them be good fathers and husbands,” Kreczmer said. “That’s really what it’s all about.”

Then there is Kreczmer’s family. At WIU, he met Michele Salvatori, a former Newman multi-sport standout who was playing basketball for the ‘Necks. They married on June 6, 2015, and have a daughter, Brynlee, age 2½.

“If I had never met her, I probably wouldn’t be here today being the head football coach,” Kreczmer said. “I thank God every day that I did.”

Michele’s athletic background included volleyball, basketball and softball, and she also coached basketball at Sauk Valley Community College. That has helped them understand the time commitments involved in coaching.

“She was a three-sport athlete in high school and played Division I basketball at Western, so she knows how grueling it is and how many hours it takes in a week to be successful,” Kreczmer said. “She’s my rock. She knows, especially during football season, I’m not home very often, and when I am, I’m breaking down film. When we don’t have a good practice, she’s there to talk to and to understand.

“For her to be able to raise our daughter kind of on her own, especially during the terrible 2's this season, was unbelievable. I always tell her and our assistant coaches’ wives they’re going to heaven with their shoes on, because I know it’s not easy during the season. They do so much for us. They’re saints.”

Kreczmer noted he is also lucky to have two great sets of parents, his own and Michele’s, to lean on.

Ron and Mary Kreczmer missed only one game during Brandon’s college career, as a freshman, when the Leathernecks played at Northern Colorado. Ron Kreczmer dislikes flying, and missed that one game. Other than that, they drove to every other one, home and away. Brandon’s sister, Kim, also went to some games.

“They’re just so supportive of me, and they try to get to as many games here as possible,” Kreczmer said.

Joe and Deb Salvatori have also been in Brandon and Michele’s corner, as a babysitter, sounding board for coaching issues – whatever is necessary.

“I have truly been blessed,” Kreczmer said.

The future

Head football coach is only one of the hats Kreczmer wears at Newman. He teaches PE and Health, Psychology, Geography, Consumer Education, and Strength & Fitness.

“Wherever they need me, that’s where I go,” he said.

He loves the school, what it represents, and has no plans to leave anytime soon. A talented senior class of football players will move on this spring, but this year’s juniors will step in to lead, and the Comets figure to be formidable again in 2020.

“It’s only Year 1, and I’ve got a long way to go to catch up to Mike,” Kreczmer said with a smile. “I could only hope to be here that long.”

Papoccia noted he had limited influence when it came to finding a successor as head football coach at Newman, but Kreczmer checked all of the boxes for what they were looking for. He couldn’t be more thrilled with how things turned out.

“I had seen the work he had put in as one of my assistants, how he handled the kids and the other coaches, and I knew he was the right man for the job,” Papoccia said. “He made me look awfully smart with what he accomplished this year. I’m very proud of him. It’s tough just being a head coach, without what we had accomplished before. He did it with flying colors.”

Kreczmer file

High school: Chicago St. Patrick (2006)

College: Western Illinois University (2008; master’s degree in 2010)

Family: Wife, Michele; daughter, Brynlee, age 2½

Resides: Rock Falls

FYI: Guided Newman to 13-1 record and Class 2A state championship in his first season as head coach. … Was an assistant coach at Newman for 6 seasons.