Sommers making grid transition at USM a successful one
Former Nicolet head earns trust, victories
Nicolet Athletic Director Kirk Krychowiak sent a text message to his old pal Brian Sommers congratulating the University School of Milwaukee football coach on his team's 39-19 win over Living Word Lutheran on Saturday that clinched the Wildcats' first state playoff berth in four years.
It just proves that friends don't forget friends even when they're coaching another team. A year ago, Sommers was leading Nicolet to a resurgent three-win season and had helped foster an attitude that the Knights were going to be no one's doormats any longer.
He was in his first year and it looked like the roots of a long, successful tenure were being set down. But budget issues and potential layoffs at Nicolet led Sommers to take a teaching and coaching job at USM.
The practical decision broke both Sommers' and Krychowiak's hearts, but it had to be done as Sommers has a young and growing family.
But in the interim, both have done OK. Krychowiak chose well in picking Brad Kozaczuk as Sommers' successor. Kozaczuk just led the Knights to their third win of the season on Friday over Grafton (see separate story) and appears to have lent a stabilizing air to a program that has seen four coaches in four years.
Adjusting to new environs
Meanwhile, Sommers, who had spent 14 years teaching health and physical education at Nicolet and had coached on various levels for five different teams, was getting used to a new culture and set of students on the elite, college-prep USM campus.
"The schedule is a little more chaotic," he said. "It's a new job, you're learning new things and in middle age like I am (laughs) things sometimes suffer a little bit, but everyone from the administration on down has gone out of their way to make me feel welcome."
In making the transition, one maxim he's learned over the years has served him in good stead: Kids are still kids.
"They're young men and women and they show up to class and sometimes, even here, they don't get their homework in on time," he said, "and I know a little of the history of this school (where the North Shore's elite sends their children to be educated), but we do have a number of backgrounds here. There has been a push to diversify here and there are some kids from 19th and State (in Milwaukee) here on scholarship.
"… It's still a great opportunity for kids to get a terrific education. You come out of here, you're almost guaranteed your first or second choice of college."
And like at Nicolet, Sommers came here to improve a football culture that had withered a little bit. He had slightly better practice facilities than at Nicolet ("Goalposts on the practice field," he chuckled) and had gotten some help from the USM Booster Club for improved uniforms and better shoulder pads.
However, he was dealing with low numbers, just 28 for the varsity ("The worst the AD said he could remember," said Sommers) and so he had to hit the ground running if the season wasn't going to turn into a fiasco.
"I look at myself as an upfront and honest person," said Sommers. "I had to make sure I earned the trust of the team. I was betting that if they trusted me, they'd be willing to do a lot and buy into the product that we (the coaching staff) was putting before them."
He kept one holdover from the old USM staff (Jason Woods) and brought some of his assistants over from Nicolet.
Undefeated in conference
And the USM kids have bought in, and the results have been good so far as the Wildcats are 4-0 in Midwest Classic Conference play and 4-2 overall.
"My number one goal going in was to make sure the nine seniors on the team get the maximum benefit and opportunity," Sommers said. "... The kids are working hard. They know that there are important things they want to get done here."
But Sommers hasn't fully shaken off his Nicolet skin just yet.
Sommers has been pleased for Kozaczuk as he had to fight through his own low numbers to earn a 3-3 mark so far this season. He's also very happy that the Knights' star quarterback Brandon Kappel is having a good season.
In fact, Sommers pointed out that there is a lot of camaraderie among North Shore area quarterbacks. He said that Kappel and his own quarterback, senior Tommy Pennington, have been friends for at least 10 years, and that Homestead signal-caller Cody Berger could be seen along the fence supporting his old pal Pennington against Living Word on Saturday.
And then there was that little visit Sommers made to Nicolet during the Knights' recent homecoming game and the thing that happened that made him feel like he had never left home.
"I'm walking along the fence and it's just like a receiving line at a wedding," he said. "One person after another came up and wanted to say 'hi' and talk.
"I never did get to see much of that game (laughs)."
But as he prepares USM to face small school power Burlington Catholic Central this weekend, Sommers knows where his priorities lie.
"I make sure to tell myself to enjoy the victories more, because we know how hard they are to come by," he said, "but we have to stay dedicated to the kids. We need to have them prepared."
So old friends from familiar places can call again and congratulate him some more.
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