A new football era has begun at Madison Edgewood, following Al Minnaert’s decision last November to step down after 26 seasons as Crusaders’ coach.
The new coach, 29-year-old Jesse Norris, brought a wealth of enthusiasm and passion for the game after coaching high school football in Florida and returning to the Midwest, where he grew up.
Concurrently, there is an appreciation for the work done by Minnaert, inducted into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Hall Fame in March; eagerness to see where Norris takes the program; and uncertainty about Edgewood’s landing spot in a proposed 2020 football-only conference realignment.
“The energy is high,” Crusaders athletic director Chris Zwettler said. “I’m very excited about the future. Jesse has worked his tail end off since he arrived in February. … The kids have been working hard in the summer program. We’re excited to see where it heads.”
So is Norris, whose staff includes several assistants with University of Wisconsin ties — including defensive coordinator Ben Strickland, a former Badgers player and assistant.
“We are really excited,” said Norris, who also will serve as event and facility coordinator at Edgewood. “There is a ridiculous amount of support. There is a ton of energy. The community is jazzed up. It’s a good thing. The change has brought a ton of energy and passion around the program.”
Norris takes over a team that won one game last season. But a solid core of seniors and seven returning starters on offense and six on defense make Norris optimistic the Crusaders can make a move up in the standings and possibly challenge for a postseason berth.
“We are learning; we are growing,” Norris said. “We have some good athletes and some great supporting players, and they will give us everything they have got. And if they do that, I think it will put us in a position to win some games.”
The Crusaders feature a tight group of seniors, notably Thomas Hartlieb, Charlie Corcoran, Noah Rieger and brothers Mitchell and Jackson Wendler who knew each other since sixth grade while growing up in the Country Grove neighborhood in west Madison and still carpool to school.
Corcoran, a slot receiver on offense and safety on defense, said he senses an excitement within the team, boosted by Norris’ passion.
“I feel like he’s really building a culture,” Corcoran said.
Hartlieb is set to play quarterback in the Crusaders’ multiple-formation offense and could see time at safety, next to his friend Corcoran.
“We are definitely trying to improve from last year and get the program moving in an upward direction,” said Hartlieb, whose father, Jim Hartlieb, played quarterback at Iowa.
Norris most recently had been an assistant in 2017 for the acclaimed St. Thomas Aquinas High School of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, working on head football coach Roger Harriott’s staff. Prior to that Norris was head coach at Plantation High School in Florida, compiling a 2-8 record in 2016.
Norris, a native of Lima, Ohio, who played receiver and linebacker for Hillsdale College in Michigan, was looking to return to the Midwest. His wife, Kelly, is from Dodgeville and they have a 17-month-old daughter, Willow.
“We were looking for a place to come back and settle and set some roots,” Jesse Norris said. “I plan on being here for a long time raising my family. I love being here and I love the people I work with.”
Edgewood previously expressed competitive concerns about playing football as the smallest school in the Badger Conference. Now, under a 2020 football-only conference realignment proposal , Edgewood and Monroe are scheduled to move from the Badger South to the Rock Valley in 2020.
Zwettler recently said Edgewood would like to remain in the Badger Conference if the league changes to a Large School-Small School configuration for football and is able to appeal the proposed shift to the Rock Valley that’s two years away.
“I haven’t coached in either conference, so I don’t know any of the competition,” Norris said. “So, this year, we plan on lining up, playing with 11 guys, having a blast and doing the best we can.
“From there, where it goes, I don’t have much control over. … We are going to try to petition to stay in the Big/Small with the Badger and if it doesn’t shake out, it is what it is and we’ll go to the Rock Valley (in 2020) and we’ll play football. Either way, as long as we are strapping up and playing on Friday night, we are good, in my opinion.”
Corcoran doesn’t mind playing against the Badger Conference’s larger schools, saying: “Bring on the challenge and try your best every game. I like being the underdog. It’s exciting playing the big MGs (Monona Grove) and Stoughtons. Big games are more exciting.”