The Madison Blaze came into the 2016 season not quite sure what to expect. The team was coming off three straight Midwest Division championships and back to back Founder’s bowl appearances, but knew that they were rebuilding. The team began the season with 14 rookies, and the smallest roster that that the team has ever had.
They began the season on a high note with the adrenaline racing as they traveled to Detroit to take on the Detroit Pride. The Blaze defense opened the game strong with an early sack by rookie McKenize Forseth, and then after a Natalie Brettingen-Nash interception, the Blaze scored their first touchdown of the season when Kara Haines found Chelsea Alt in the end zone where she made a diving catch for the touchdown.
“I heard the play being called to me. I quickly analyzed the linebacker lined up in front of me and took off. It was a corner route to the end-zone and I got myself wide open. Kara rolled out, quickly threw the ball up and took a hard hit immediately after. It was a difficult catch to make but I dove forward and caught it, making sure the referee clearly saw my arm underneath the ball.” Says Alt.
Along with Forseth, several other Blaze rookies saw themselves making an immediate impact, including Ali Burke who scored the next Blaze touchdown with a 20 yard interception return, and Kaarina Stehely who led the team with six tackles as the Blaze the took down the Pride 28-0 to open the season.
“As the ball was coming down, all I could think about was that I better catch it, because it was thrown a mile high and just floating towards me. It hit me right in the numbers. Then I realized that I had to run, and when I saw the defensive line clearing the way in front of me, I relaxed and kicked it into sniper speed. After I scored I was met by a wave of my teammates and there is nothing more fun than celebrating with them.” Said Burke.
In the second game of the season, the Blaze went to Nebraska to take on the Stampede, a team that was quickly becoming a heated rival. The Blaze knew they would be in for a fight and they were up to the challenge even after they found themselves trailing twice throughout the game.
Down 20-14 to start the fourth quarter, the Blaze found themselves facing a 4th and goal at the Stampede 6 yard line, when Haines took the snap and raced up the middle for the touchdown to put the Blaze ahead 21-20.
Following the Blaze touchdown, the Stampede took the ball all the way down the field, and also found themselves facing a fourth and goal. However a heads up play Brettingen-Nash as she kept the receiver from getting open in the end zone, ended the Stampede drive, and they would not score again.
“Truly the theme of the entire game for our team was grit. In the fourth quarter, the defense gathered on the field calmly and I reminded all of us to take a deep breath, relax, communicate and do your job. You could feel the energy in the group settle and come to focus. We broke the huddle and came out very confident. “ Said Laurie Gott.
The Blaze would score on the next two drives to put the game away as Haines would find Alt for a five yard touchdown on the first drive, and then run it in herself on the next drive to give the Blaze the hard fought 35-20 victory over the Stampede.
“We don’t panic, if you saw our sideline you wouldn’t have even known that we were going neck and neck with them in a tight game. We all just keep our composure, and do what we need to do. The defense came up with some huge stops in the fourth, and then the offense capitalized on that. From there we started to put the game away.” Says Haines.
The next week, the Blaze welcomed the Minnesota Vixen to Middleton for their 2016 home opener. The two teams had split the season series each of the past two seasons, and knew that it would be a battle right from the start. After a defensive struggle for much of the game, the Vixen scored the first points of the game to start the second half to give the Vixen the 7-0 lead.
It was all that the Vixen needed, as their defense smothered the Blaze for the rest of the game as they scored two more touchdowns to give them the 21-0 victory over the Blaze and sole possession of first place and drop the Blaze to 2-1.
Following the 21-0 loss to the Vixen, the Blaze bounced back with another road victory in Iowa against the Crush, which saw the emergence of another rookie Kirsten Madisen, who had 85 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
On defense the Blaze were swarming right from the get go. Led by Lydia Sujewicz, who was playing her first career game at corner back, the Blaze defense came out focused, angry and motivated. Sujewicz, who turned her season best performance on defense with eight tackles, one pass deflected, a game changing tackle and one bone crunching hit late in the game along the sidelines, set the tone for the Blaze defense as they only surrendered six points, which didn’t come until late in the game.
“I do think that hit along the sidelines was a little symbolic. We all played very well, and all played very physical. It was a fantastic defensive game. Playing corner was nerve racking yet satisfying. Corner just made more sense. Tracking a person instead of the ball is much more my forte. I love it, and it feels right.” Said Sujewicz.
Stehley would continue her dominant rookie season on defense as well, as she intercepted a pass and ran it back 20 yards for the touchdown on the first play from scrimmage to start the second half. The 26-6 victory over the Crush put the Blaze at 3-1 on the season.
“I was bound and determined to get a pick six in this game. I had envisioned it in my head. Almost every pass play on that side the quarterback threw the same route. I knew right away she was passing and read her eyes going to the exact spot that I expected her to. I started running in that direction as soon as she dropped back to throw. I had it timed just right. I intercepted it, and ran as fast as I could to the end zone. It was a great way for our defense to start the second half.” Explained Stehley.
Despite the high of game against the Crush, the Blaze began to face adversity like they had never faced before, starting with another tough, hard-nosed, physical battle against the Stampede. The Blaze found themselves trailing for most of the game, but Haines would once again lead another thrilling second half comeback.
Trailing 24-13 at the half, the Blaze offense would come out all guns blazing in the third quarter, starting on an electric play by Madisen, which saw her break through the hole get out the right side and out race the entire Stampede defense, all the way down the sideline for the 90 yard touchdown to cut the lead to 24-19. The 90 yard touchdown run was the longest touchdown in Blaze history.
“I already knew how this team played from the first time that we had played them. Once I got outside, I knew that nobody was going to catch me. I kept thinking run and when it felt like I slowed down, I picked it up and shifted to second gear. That was one of the best feelings ever, especially since I’ve been hoping to break a big run like that.” Said Madisen on her record breaking run.
After giving up a field goal to the Stampede, the Blaze would march right down the field again, as Alt burst through the Stampede defenders for a 10 yard touchdown, to pull the Blaze within two points. Unfortunately, the Stampede would add another late touchdown, and the Blaze would run out of time dropping their second game of the season to put them at 3-2.
Following the heartbreak of the previous week’s loss to the Stampede, the Blaze traveled to Minnesota in hopes of once again splitting the season series, and putting themselves in a position to contend for the division title. The result however, would be the same as the first game against the Vixen earlier in the season, as they defeated the Blaze 29-0 to end their streak of four consecutive division titles.
Looking to end the regular season on a high note, the Blaze were ready to take out their frustration as they welcomed the Crush to Middleton for their 2016 regular season and home finale. Both the Blaze offense and defense erupted and smothered the Crush in what might have been the best game of the season for the Blaze.
The Blaze offense came out hungry and ready to attack, as they set the pace of game early on when Stefanie Brettingen-Nash found Forseth over the middle for a 14 yards. Just a few plays later, Haines exploded through the Crush defense for 30 yards to set up a 20 yard touchdown run by Madisen to put the Blaze up 7-0.
On the next drive the Blaze continued to run all over the Crush, as Akiya Alexander took the jet sweep and raced down the field for 57 yards and into the end zone before Haines struck on defense with an 82 yard interception return to put the Blaze up 19-0 at the half.
“I just followed my lead blockers and bounced to the outside. Then as my coach would say I just ran to daylight.” Said Alexander on her touchdown run.
"I saw all of the receivers in front of me and then glanced back at the quarterback and she was getting pressured so I sat back and waited. I knew that it was coming my way because it was her only option. I saw it coming and made a play on it." Said Haines on her interception return.
Led by Haines 82 interception return for a touchdown, the Blaze defense would also deliver a dominant performance, with one interception each by Sujewicz and Pam Close, as well as sacks by Gott and Jamine White. The 33-0 final would be the first shutout of the season for the Blaze.
The win over the Crush put the Blaze into the playoffs and in contention for a third straight Founder’s Bowl appearance as they would take on the Carolina Phoenix. Unfortunately for the Blaze, much like the 2015 season, the 2016 would end with a loss to the Phoenix, this time 54-6. The loss to the Phoenix would put the Blaze at 5-4 to finish the season.
After coming into the season with 14 rookies, the Blaze ended the season feeling pretty confident going forward about their new players, as many of them had outstanding rookie seasons. Their performances throughout the season, not only inspired veterans, but each other going forward, as felt as if what they learned during the course of the 2016 season was unlike anything else, and proved to be invaluable.
““It just means that a lot of the rookies took on the challenge of trying to make this team better. We had a lot of talent that were playing in their first season and all of us are only going to continue to get better as players. We only lost a couple of games and made it to the playoffs. We did pretty well for the most part. Our season could have been a lot worse with the amount of rookies that we had. I believe the season was a success given the circumstances.” Says Madisen.
“There were so many positives from this year that it’s hard to pick out just one. I came into the first couple of off season practices nervous and scared of what to expect from this completely new sport that I had never played before. Over time I gained a strong bond and sisterhood with some of the greatest women that I’ve ever gotten the pleasure of playing next to.” Explains Stehley.
“We learned a lot though as rookies, and we are hungry to get back at it next season and go for a championship. We have a great group of rookies and we are all ready to get into the gym and better ourselves for the team.” Adds Forseth.
“This season we received some absolutely amazing rookies. They worked hard, played hard and already gearing up for next season. I can’t truly put into words how awesome it was to watch them play this season and hear how excited that they are about working on next season. That’s always something that you want to hear.” Says Sujewicz.
“We found talents that we didn’t know people had. I learned just how much heart that this team has. We were persistent and showed resilience. More than one opposing coach noted that we played hard until the final whistle. We never gave up and we clawed our way into the playoffs.” Adds Stormy Justice.
2016 Statistical leaders for the Blaze included Haines with 733 yards rushing on 125 carries. Haines also led the team in rushing touchdowns with eight, and Madisen also had five. Alt led the team in receiving with 14 catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns and on defense Stehley led the team in tackles with 47 while White led the team with four sacks.
The Blaze would also send six players including Chelsea Alt, Kara Haines, Kaarina Stehley, Akiya Alexander, Pam Close and Ali Bjelopetrovich and Coach Justin Weaver to North Carolina to represent the Blaze and the Eastern Conference in the 2016 IWFL All-Star game, where Haines would score a touchdown.