Madison semipro football team winning big
David Petrowiak stood on the sideline late Saturday night gazing at the scoreboard, wholly dumbfounded by the game's outcome.
Petrowiak, quarterback of the Madison (Wis.) Mustangs semipro football team, had never experienced defeat while under center. And for a guy in his fifth year with the team, that's saying something.
Madison, the four-time defending Ironman Football League champion, steamrolled its way to 49 consecutive victories dating back to 2008. That is, until last week, when the Antioch (Ill.) Sting finally upended Madison 28-9 in the season opener.
"It was kind of numbing, actually," Petrowiak said. "After four years, it's like, ‘What do we do?' We knew it was going to happen sooner or later, but it's never easy."
Petrowiak's shock over one loss speaks to the incredible level of consistency the Mustangs have found the past four seasons — a model far different from other semipro teams in the league.
Players say the tone of practice, held once a week during the regular season, as well as the team's overall talent and wider recruiting base separate it from counterparts. The team meets every Tuesday from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Keva Sports Center in Middleton, Wis., for its weekly practice, a no-nonsense session run much like a college practice by sixth-year head coach Adam Smith.
"Our practices have to be very crisp," said Smith, an elementary school teacher in Madison. "They have to be very high tempo. We can't waste any reps."
Petrowiak said players who join the Mustangs and once played for other semipro football teams take notice of the practice structure immediately.
"They say the big thing there is the seriousness of it," Petrowiak said. "It's not something for the faint of heart, not something to take lightly."
Many of the Mustangs players come from college football backgrounds, having once played Division III football somewhere in the state. Others played in high school and likely could have competed at the Division III level but instead opted to attend a larger school, such as the University of Wisconsin.
Petrowiak, a 27-year-old Germantown, Wis., native, finished his college football career at UW-Platteville as a safety. But he entered fall camp his first two years as a quarterback, giving him enough experience to take over the position for the Mustangs.
Madison wide receiver Zak Gordon played football and wrestled at Coe College in Iowa. Gordon has been an Ironman Football League all-star at four positions.
"A lot of us do a good job of recruiting guys out of college," Gordon said. "I probably would have said that I would have quit playing semipro football four or five years ago if it wasn't for the steps that the team has taken to have structure, the no BS type."
In addition to the practice environment, the Mustangs also have the benefit of playing in the second-largest city in Wisconsin behind Milwaukee, which provides the opportunity to find more people throughout the city. Petrowiak, who works in Madison for an electrical company, was recruited by a friend through Facebook.
Petrowiak said attendance of the team's home games, played at Middleton High School, sometimes reached 500 to 600 fans because players live and work in the community and know people in town. Madison hosted the IFL championship in 2008 and drew a league-record 3,500 people to the game.
Team rosters consist of 55 players, with 10 "flex" players, who might become available as the season progresses.
Life as a semipro football player requires major dedication. Players risk injury for little glory other than the camaraderie of having teammates and playing games for a few weeks every summer. The regular season began June 9 and runs until Aug. 11. The championship game is set for Sept. 8.
"I think the hardest part is just the physicality of it," Gordon said. "Everything looks good on paper and the walk-throughs, but when it really gets 110 percent, hat on hat and the physical part of it and the game-type scenario, you kind of wish you had a couple more practices. That's an impossible feat for semipro football, though."
While the Mustangs' 49-game winning streak was impressive, it didn't come without some questions about the level of competition. Last season, for example, Madison defeated the Greendale Panthers 75-0, the Milwaukee Storm 56-0, the Fond du Lac Crusaders 79-0, and the Milwaukee Venom 46-0.
Smith shrugs off the notion that the Mustangs are unfairly beating up on other league teams or should join another conference. Instead, he notes that his team should be commended for sustaining a level of excellence rarely seen in the semipro football world.
The Mustangs, founded in 1998, are the oldest team in the league. Three teams are operating in their first year of existence. The IFL consists of 10 teams, with eight from Wisconsin and two from Illinois.
"People just don't fully understand the league or the level and how hard it is to maintain something," Smith said. "Because the average semipro football team lasts three years. That's the average. It's not a moneymaking business by any means. If you don't do it right, you're not going to have a team very long."
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