Duty calls midseason for local football coach

Jake Verbeten will coach the Madison Abundant Life football team for three games before deploying to Iraq with the Wisconsin Air National Guard mid-September.  (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin State Journal)

Jake Verbeten will coach the Madison Abundant Life football team for three games before deploying to Iraq with the Wisconsin Air National Guard mid-September. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin State Journal)

MADISON, Wis. -- As eager as Jake Verbeten is for his prep football season to begin tonight, the Madison Abundant Life coach is equally reluctant to have to walk away from the Challengers in three weeks. 

But duty calls, and for Verbeten that means another stint in Iraq with the Wisconsin Air  National Guard. 

Verbeten will be among more than 200 members from the 115th Fighter Wing based
out of Truax Field in Madison to ship out in mid-September. The unit will deploy its Aviation Package to Iraq to support ground forces there and Verbeten will be among the aircraft maintenance specialists working on the electrical and air-conditioning units on the F-16 Fighting Falcons that will be flown overseas. 

"Of course, there are always concerns that something might happen," Verbeten said of the risk of his mission. "Generally, in my branch of the military, things tend to be a little safer. I've done this before. It's something I'm relatively comfortable with." 

What is becoming less comfortable for him is leaving his players. 

While they have just 23 players on the roster, the Challengers return six starters eager to build off last season's 3-6 record. 

They'll have three games to begin that process with Verbeten before he turns his coaching duties over to Mark Martinez, the team's offensive coordinator. 

"It's unusual and, to be honest, a bit frustrating, too," said Verbeten, who is starting his fourth season as Abundant Life coach and has been in the program all five years of its existence. 

"It's frustrating because I've seen these guys grow up. But I don't get to see the end of the careers here, for the (seven) seniors. Yet, I have a duty and I have to make sure they understand my duty comes first." 

'Our turn to give back'
The Challengers, who have never won more than three games in a season during their brief existence, must win four Small Trailways Conference games to qualify for the WIAA playoffs for the first time. 

"If it's anything less than the playoffs, it's not a successful year," senior lineman Kevin
Bruning said. "We've got the talent. This is our year to (do it)." 

In other words, Verbeten's players feel a certain duty to him to deliver the kind of breakout season that Bruning describes. 

"He's going overseas so he's one of the men over there serving for our country," senior lineman Jimmy Tressley said. "It's our turn to give back to him. It's our turn to fight for him on the football field." 

That fight begins with a non-conference game at Brookfield Academy. In fact, the Challengers' first three games are all nonconference games and they won't begin Small Trailways play until Sept. 18 - the week Verbeten is scheduled to leave for Iraq - at Williams Bay. 

Verbeten is determined to make the most of the time he has with a team that - in his mind - needs to take advantage of its experience at the skill positions and size on the line, and avoid injuries, to get where it wants to go. 

"My goals are to set this season into motion, make sure everyone is where they need to be," Verbeten said. "Make sure the leadership for the team is where it needs to be and every player knows what he's supposed to do and his role. 

"And also to make sure that when the coaching change happens it's not going to change that much." 

A seamless handoff
Much of that responsibility will fall to Martinez, who has been with Verbeten all four years
that he's been the coach. 

"It's something where we take a cliche from Bret Bielema and the Badgers: "Next man in", said Martinez, who was a walk-on at the University of Wisconsin during the late 1980s. "We respect and appreciate what Coach V. is doing. "He's serving our country". 

"He'll still be with us in spirit. We'll still be able to carry on what he's left behind and, hopefully, we'll do it in a winning way." 

Still, the players know the mid-season change in coaches means a change in personalities in the face of the program. 

"They're two different coaching styles, but they're both great at it," quarterback Teddy Gerry said. "Coach Verbeten is a little more laid back when he's teaching us. Coach Marty is more straight-up and strict. ... I think we'll adapt OK." 

At the same time, Gerry admitted it will be a challenge for the Challengers to keep their focus. 

The strength of their schedule is back-loaded in the final three weeks. That's when they play at Rio before closing out with a game against Cambria-Friesland on their home field behind the school off Buckeye Road and a designated home game against Randolph - the preseason favorite in the Small Trailways - that will be played at Deerfield because Abundant Life's field does not have lights. 

"It's going to be difficult for us," said Bruning, who hopes his teammates can draw inspiration from their coach serving overseas.
 
"He's not only telling us to go fight, but he's leading by example. He's going (to Iraq) and fighting for us here at home, while we're fighting for his team."

(Reprinted with permission of the Wisconsin State Journal)
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