CHIPPEWA FALLS — There were times where it was quite difficult to get anyone excited about McDonell football in 2018, whether that be the players, students or fans.

Sticking with a team whose only win came in a season-closing exhibition game is a tough feat.

“We were sort of the joke of the school, losing every game by a lot,” McDonell coach Jason Cox said.

It appeared to be a year to forget for the Macks, but instead it was one of progress as the team adjusted in its first year as an 8-man football program. Cox was able to get comfortable in the style of the 8-man game, learning little necessary strategies liking bringing the safety into the box as an extra linebacker. It helped that he was able to see some of the state’s best programs up close. Lost in all the losing last year was the talent of the opponents — seven of the Macks’ eight games were against teams currently ranked in the state’s top ten.

The results this season show a drastic improvement.

McDonell has won two of its first three games of the year, only falling to a Newman Catholic team currently ranked No. 2 in the state in the coaches’ poll.

“There’s a lot more buy-in this year,” said Cox, a former L-T sports reporter. “We have a motto around here. ‘No excuses.’ There were a lot of excuses made last year for reasons why we were losing games. We kind of took that to heart. Hey, if we do something wrong, we’re not going to make an excuse, we’re just going to do better next time.”

At the center of the Macks’ success has been the tremendous connection between quarterback Tanner Opsal and tight end Kendren Gullo, who put up the type of stats you’ll likely only see at the prep level in the spacey 8-man game.

In the team’s two wins, Opsal has thrown for 566 yards and rushed for 245, while Gullo has accumulated 326 yards on 18 catches.

“At the beginning it was kind of tough because we had to get down the timing with one another,” Gullo said. “Now we’ve really got it down.”

“He’s been getting open,” Opsal added. “I can throw it up to him and he can jump up and get it.”

Cox entered the season deciding between these two for the starting quarterback position. Gullo was the man last year, but the staff knew he could provide a spark at other positions. If Opsal could just be around as good as Gullo was last year, the offense would improve.

Gullo’s experience as the signal caller has given him insight that he passed to Opsal, something the new QB has been appreciative of. Opsal has paid him back with plenty of targets.

“Tanner has been probably a little better than expected,” Cox said.

Fueling the offense’s explosion has been an improved offensive line, which features many of the same players as last year, just stronger. That’s allowed the Macks to have a more balanced offense, since at points last year they needed to entirely abandon the run.

Opsal may not have the look of a running threat, considering his size and lack of breakneck speed, but has used his power to get behind the O-line and Gullo and make moves on the ground. In turn, that’s opened up passing opportunities with defenses needing to respect Gullo’s feet.

Week 1 featured a prove-it moment for the Macks, who went down 14-0 to Port Edwards after the first quarter and entered the break down 21-7 following a 70-yard run by Blackhawks’ quarterback Quinton Tranel.

“The game started out in a similar fashion to many of our games last year,” Cox said. “We missed tackles, gave up big plays, got down early. It was sort of a, ‘Here we go again.’ It was kind of a gut-check time.”

The Macks responded with a 21-0 run to start the second half, eventually winning 42-40 on a two-yard run by Opsal with six minutes and change remaining. The QB accounted for over 500 yards in that game.

With the wins piling up, Cox and the players sense a different feel at practice.

“It’s much better this year when you win games,” Gullo said. “Now we have the confidence going into the next week that we can actually win games instead of ‘Oh great, here we go again.’”

As the players have found a new spark, the fans have followed.

“Last year they were picking on all of us because we didn’t win games,” Gullo said. “This year, when we’re winning games by 20, or even just by a little bit like we did in Week 1, they’re surprised and on top of it they’re behind us and cheering for us.”

McDonell is finding its footing in 8-man right when the style of football is becoming increasingly viable – and necessary – for smaller schools in the state. Enrollment numbers in grades 9-12 went down about 45,000 across Wisconsin from 2006 to 2015 said WIAA Deputy Director Wade Labecki. The football turnout numbers reflect that.

“I anticipate that 8-player football will continue to grow as the enrollments in our small schools continues to reduce,” Labecki said.

Labecki said talks of reduced-man football began about 15 years ago in this area, spurred by New Auburn and a couple other schools’ interest. When it was first introduced in the state, the WIAA had a jamboree of the top four teams from the north and top four from the south to drum up interest.

Last year saw the first 8-man state championship, which featured an eight-school tournament that was won by Sevastopol. Sixteen schools will compete in the postseason this year.

Forty-one teams are eligible this season, up nine from last year. Next year it will jump to 47 total programs.

“It gives teams an opportunity to still maintain the sport, still maintain their community,” Labecki said.

The Macks currently compete as an independent but will benefit from another step forward for 8-man when conference realignment is put into place next season. McDonell will play in Conference A in the central region along with New Auburn, Gilman, Lincoln, Bruce and Phillips.

McDonell has the week off but is already preparing for next Friday’s contest against Chequamegon, a team they’ll see twice in the final five games of the regular season.

Cox said the squad entered the season with an outside expectation of making the playoffs. Through three weeks, that goal is starting to feel more realistic.

“Now it’s a real possibility,” the second-year coach said. “I think the guys, they really want that.”