Somehow, some way, in the wake of a 60-12 win over Chase County on Oct. 9, Madison head coach Alex McMillian wasn’t happy.
Up big on a quality Chase County team, in a victory that took the Bulldogs to 6-0 on the season, the fifth-year head coach saw his team’s focus and composure drop in the face of adversity. When McMillian watched the game film, he walked away even more frustrated. On Monday, McMillian held what he called a “come to Jesus” meeting with his players and squared the issue away.
Even in a 48-point win, Madison found something to work on.
“I told them that I can fix the football problems as long as they can fix their composure and their ability to handle adversity,” McMillian said. “They were very responsive. They understood what they did wrong. And then they went out and worked to fix it.”
The Bulldogs’ intensity has served them well so far this fall. Headed into Friday night’s visit to Flinthills, McMillian’s Madison remained undefeated. The Bulldogs have torn through their schedule, winning five of their six games by 45 points or more, after toppling Chase County, have virtually locked up the district with two regular season games remaining.
But Madison has its eyes set on bigger prizes than another undefeated regular season or a district title. In 2019, the Bulldogs accomplished both before falling in a 46-6 defeat to eventual state champions Canton-Galva. This fall, Madison has state title ambitions of it own, and as the Bulldogs head into late October on a likely postseason collision course with Canton-Galva once again, Madison is looking to remain sharp and focused, and meetings such as the one McMillian held earlier this week are all part of chasing that ultimate goal.
“I think our guys have done a really good job of playing each week like we’re playing in a championship,” McMillian said. “The ultimate goal is to compete for a state championship. Canton-Galva is going to be one of the steps to getting there.”
At the core of yet another dominant Madison team is a group of upperclassmen who weren’t sure they’d even get to play football this fall.
When senior running back Hunter Engle moved to Madison from Chase County in fourth grade, his first friend was Bulldogs quarterback Casey Helm. He got to know tight end Chase Harrison after. In middle school, the trio linked up and became friends with fellow seniors Brome and Braden Rayburn. The group now leading Madison’s chase for a state title has been playing youth basketball, Pee Wee football and swimming in the Madison City Pool since they were 10 years old.
Running back Ryan Wolgram? Engle has been going to church with him since they were babies.
“It’s a special group,” Engle said. “We’re really tight knit. I’m thankful that we’re this close and that we’re getting to have this final season.”
It’s a final season that some thought might never happen.
After the crushing loss to Canton-Galva ended the 2019 season, COVID-19 threatened to postpone the 2020 fall season before it even began. All summer, the Bulldogs trained and practiced and tried to keep the virus concerns, the one that were out of their hands, out of their heads. But even Engle admits he and the seniors were skeptical they could get past the first few weeks. Many schools didn’t. But now, in Week 7, Madison is still playing football.
The thought of any alternative, one where he and his teammates couldn’t finish one more season, still bothers Engle.
“It was unfathomable,” Engle said. “I can’t describe the feeling it gave me. Football has been my thing for so long. And to miss out on what I’ve been working for for 10 years, I couldn’t imagine it. Just the thought was heartbreaking.”
On the field this fall, that core that’s getting one more chance has been prolific. McMillian has gone to the air more in 2020, and Helm has risen to the task under center, shining in a three-touchdown performance against Oxford on Oct. 2. On the ground, Engle, Wolgram and the Rayburn brothers have taken turns running through opposing defenses.
Against Chase County, it was Engle’s turn and the senior torched the visitors, racking up five touchdowns and 165 yards rushing. Wolgram and Brome Rayburn picked up the slack behind him, and together the trio rushed for 348 yards in the sort of performance that’s become familiar for the Bulldogs this fall. Many of the same contributors have been key on the other side of the ball, as well, and since giving up 24 points to Burlingame in Week 1, Madison hasn’t allowed an opponent more than 14 points in any other contest.
With an offense that’s humming and a defense that has only gotten better as the season has progressed, the Bulldogs look ready for a postseason challenge.
“We have so many different playmakers,” McMillian said. “We’ve been spreading the ball out. I know there’s been a couple of weeks that have been seven or eight different guys scoring a touchdown in a game. It just kind of makes us hard to key in on us offensively.”
McMillian is keen on remaining focused on their final two regular games against Flinthills and Central, but the bad taste from last season’s defeat to Canton-Galva remains as postseason play lies around the corner.
The players in particular haven’t forgotten the loss. Engle, who sprained his ankle early in the game, remembers watching helplessly from the sideline as Eagles tore through the Madison defense. Not a whole lot is different from the Bulldogs this year, some new contributing players aside, but the mentality, particularly toward their rivals in the chase for a state title, is changed.
Madison doesn’t know if or when it’ll take on Canton-Galva, but this time, this year, the Bulldogs feel ready.
“I think the fact we lost last year gives us some fuel.” Engle said. “That’ll make us hit harder, run faster, block better. I never want to feel that feeling of defeat again especially against them.”