By Craig Marx, Editor
It was Week 9 of the regular season in 1975 when the Antigo Red Robins had just defeated the Stevens Point Panthers 35-13. Antigo was the best team in the state, 9-0 overall, with all of those wins coming from within the battle-hardened Wisconsin Valley Conference. There was only one problem – Antigo’s season was over right there.
Before the creation of the WIAA playoff format, the Robins finished No. 1 in the Associated Press and United Press International polls concurrently three times during the tenure of Coach Gordon Schofield’s career, in 1972, 1973, and 1975, making Antigo the “mythical champions” of the state of Wisconsin in what now seems like very anti-climactic fashion for the old coach.
The AP poll was compiled by sports writers while the UPI was based on the input of a number of coaches from the state. While the end of the year rankings technically indicated who had been most dominant by the end of the regular season, hence being able to claim a de facto championship, the eventual creation of a playoff system would become a competitive and economic byproduct of high school football’s poll era.
“[The polls] created a lot of interest in high school football, so when you’re named the mythical champion, it’s just that – mythical. But, there were some great teams that were just that and went undefeated,” Schofield said of the polls’ appeal and his teams’ success during the AP era.
Recently celebrating its 40th anniversary, the WIAA instituted the high school football playoff system in 1976 to help determine the all-out best team in the state – a feat that was accomplished by the Red Robins in the postseason’s inaugural year.
“It came from the coaches association and the WIAA together to create a playoff system,” Schofield explained. “They had never had a tournament system before but I think nowadays the playoff system generates a lot of money for the WIAA. I think it stimulates a lot of interest but they may have gone a little overboard recently. They want to get more teams involved, but you look at the opening weekends and some of these teams that make it into the playoffs with a 4-5 record just get hammered. I think it stretches things out too long.”
In order to win the Wisconsin state championship in the modern millennium, a team would need to record five playoff wins to claim the ultimate prize at Camp Randall. With the WIAA trying to include more teams and play on a week-to-week postseason schedule, the season itself has become elongated. Practice for the 2017 season is slotted to begin as early as July next year.
“I’d say the playoffs were something that coaches around the state really wanted. One of the problems I found was that if you had a good season and won a conference championship but didn’t win the state championship, it kind of left you with a sour taste. If we lost in the semi-finals, I never stuck around for the championship game,” Schofield said with a laugh.
There were, however, some teams that did not need to worry about the length of a postseason, or rather did not have that opportunity. When Schofield took over for head coach Link Walker in 1962, the old coach would see his program expand its number of regular season contests from seven to nine games a year over the next five years. In 1969, Antigo made its first real statement on the polling system, finishing second in the state behind a tough Fond du Lac team.
“Fond du Lac was really good that year, but we were pretty good, too,” Schofield quipped.
The ’69 team featured senior fullback Kim Fermanich and talented quarterback Steve Brettingen. Finishing 9-0 overall and 6-0 in the Valley, the team would gain notoriety in the annals of Robin football history as one of the most prolific offenses the school had ever fielded averaging over 42 points per game, including a 60-12 trouncing of Stevens Point to mark a season high.
Antigo’s first No. 1 ranking in the state and first of its three mythical championships came in 1972. Running back Joe Pilecky, who would unfortunately pass away in a car accident while attending UW-Stevens Point later on, received All-State honors for 1,335 yards rushing that year in which he averaged an astounding 8.4 yards per carry. Mike Kafka was also an All-State selection, and the ’72 season saw the first start for quarterback Jeff Lund – a QB that never lost a game once he hit the field.
The 1972 squad finished 9-0 as well and is also one of the higher octane offenses Antigo has had, averaging 37 points per game.
The string of winning continued in 1973 for the Red Robins, where another “championship” could be claimed with a No. 1 ranking in both the AP and UPI polls after yet another 9-0 finish. Behind Lund and the workhorse running of junior Kevin Boodry, the ’73 team allowed Coach Schofield to get back-to-back top rankings for the first time ever in school history. Boodry rushed for 1,161 yards as the team dismantled opponents, including a 47-0 shutout of Wisconsin Rapids and 55-0 whooping over Marshfield.
Seven men of the dominant ’73 squad were selected to the Valley’s all-conference first team, including Boodry, Craig Avery, Dave Wagner, Rod Duffek, Jeff Shebuski, Jack Guenthner, and Tony Schleinz.
In an impressive one-loss, 8-1 season in 1974, Boodry was named All-State Running Back of the Year.
“We only lost one game [in 1974] to Rhinelander. That was a team that had three guys on it that eventually went down to play at Madison,” Schofield added.
That brings us back to that 1975 team and the last of the mythical champions of Antigo football. Under the direction of quarterback Dan Thorpe, Coach Schofield took an injury-ridden team to a 9-0 finish in what would be the last season of seemingly-inconsequential finishes at the No. 1 spot.
Tom Schremp would go on to claim the venerable title of All-State Lineman of the Year under Schofield’s guidance that year. The ’75 team utilized an exceptional defense as well, allowing an average of just eight points per game.
With the implementation of the playoffs a year later and a finite way to determine the best team in the state, the teams that finished No. 1 in all of Wisconsin without a tournament system have been sometimes lost among the tournament system champs.
“It’s hard to compare teams,” Schofield admitted. “All of them had their strengths. Some were maybe more outstanding on offense, some on defense. I guess it all depended on the level of competition you played against. [These teams] didn’t get the statewide recognition that teams that win a ‘state’ championship get. Those teams of ’72, ’73, and ’75 don’t have the reunions that the other playoff champion teams have had, and unfortunately that’s just the way it is.”