Tags: Feature Sports Story, Sports
Big Foot players hoist the runners-up trophy Thursday. Mike Ramczyk. (click for larger version)
November 19, 2012 | 05:58 PMWALWORTH — It wasn't always this easy.
Before the five consecutive conference titles, before the nearly 50-game conference win streak and before the state title games, there were once tough times for the Big Foot football program.
Last Thursday, the Chiefs played in their third state championship bout in only five years, but 20 years ago, high-profile games were merely a dream.
The 1970s and 80s yielded zero playoff appearances, despite three conference titles in the 70s. The 1990s were the toughest years. From 1995 to 1999, the Chiefs went 4-41. In '95, they were outscored in conference play by an unthinkable margin of 234-27. That's an average of three points a game, a far cry from the 50 per Big Foot dropped on opponents this year.
Then a guy named Rodney Wedig came along. And slowly, those embarrassing losses turned into victories. The confident, charismatic 40-something brought the school its first playoff appearance in his first season, 2003, and he hasn't missed the postseason since. A solid youth program, the Big Foot Wolves, and beliefs in hard work and fundamentals have helped Wedig post a 92-25 record, six conference titles and a state championship.
"When I went to my first game here 13 years ago at East Troy, there was one student in the stands," said Big Foot Athletic Director Tim Collins. "This has progressed to four fan buses going to Camp Randall (Thursday)."
From the beginning, Wedig stressed offseason workouts and the idea that working harder than your opponent would produce wins.
"When I started at Big Foot, football was not expected to win," Wedig said. "The work in the offseason has allowed us to keep getting better, and our youth program introduces players to different fundamentals that help them when we get them in high school."
"Obviously, it starts at the top," Collins said. "Coach Wedig has done a phenomenal job of getting kids to buy in. He has up to 70 kids in the weight room in the summer. His staff also does a great job. He delegates where he needs to and they take it from there. (Baseball coach) Steve Bochat has been instrumental in the weight room developing these kids."
A man who is no longer on the football staff but has seen his fair share of games is retired Big Foot teacher and coach Jim Haeni, who spent 32 years on the sidelines.
"We had our tough times for many, many years," he said. "The program suffered a lot of 1-2 win years for some time. Three things have led to success, Rodney, the Wolves program and the kids themselves with their talent and good work ethic. We have dedicated coaches who stress fundamentals and teamwork over winning."
Assistant coach Greg Lueck, who was the head coach from 1999 to 2003, said Bochat's strength and conditioning class along with assistant coach Wes Courier's emphasis on speed have been key to the program's success.
"We have created an environment where a student-athlete will be put into a position to excel both on and off the field," Lueck said. "The leadership and dedication of the athletes made this season really special."
Along with the hard work, it never hurts to have top-notch talent. In the past five years, names like Travis Frederick (Wisconsin starting center), Michael Walker (first team all-conference running back at D2 St. Cloud State), T.J. Schaid (all-conference college running back) and Kenny Walker (freshman at St. Cloud State) have dazzled with their long runs, big hits and slick moves.
But, this year's group, according to several players and Wedig, wasn't quite as talented as some past teams. But they all worked toward the common goal of being the best team possible and improving each week.
"Everything we do as a staff is pretty consistent, and we share a similar philosophy of making the most out of the talents of our kids and providing a positive atmosphere for them to grow in," Wedig said. "We are continually making sure that we are not satisfied, and we try to adjust to the talent we have each year. This year, we adjusted the offense to play off Carter and Mason's strengths."
Carter Hehr and Mason Dixon thrived in the shotgun spread formation.
Lining up beside each other as the only two players in the backfield, Hehr would either hand the ball to Dixon or fake it and roll for a run or pass option.
Dixon, who rushed for 2,243 yards and a state-high 42 touchdowns, was named the offensive player of the year in the state. Hehr was an honorable mention all-state selection.
He totaled 2,360 all-purpose yards and 34 touchdowns including scores through the air, on the ground and off kickoff and punt returns.
All that, and he added five interceptions to boot.
This 1-2 punch carried the Big Foot offense all the way to Madison with its consistent big plays. The Chiefs finished 12-1.
"These kids really came together and believed they could do it and trusted each other," Haeni said.
"This season was a season a coach dreams about," Wedig said. "You have a bunch of kids that enjoy being together, and they are all driven to the same goal. I will miss them. Most people think as coaches we all measure ourselves with wins and losses, but the teams I look back on most fondly are the teams that got the most out of their potential and really grew as men. This is that team. I feel like we have developed and worked with some great young men who happen to be pretty good at football."
Big Foot, which pools from several communities around Walworth, is never short on love from the community.
There was a village-sized contingent of red at Camp Randall screaming their lungs out, but the support wasn't always this strong.
"It took a while, but now Walworth, Sharon, Fontana and the other areas around the school are unbelievably supportive. We have made three trips to Madison in five years, and we have as many fans there as all the big schools. Then they meet us coming into town and organize dinners. It is great to have everyone in town talking football."
Wedig said the senior leadership with this team was very strong, and he "never came to school worried about who might get in trouble." But this steady core of seniors, led by all-state selections Dixon, Hehr and Garett Cary, will soon graduate and leave behind a huge void for next year's Chiefs to fill.
Rebuilding isn't a word with this team. Collins said Wedig has a "program" going.
How will Wedig overcome another talented group's departure?
"The coaching staff will continue to work as hard as possible to keep Big Foot at the level that has become expected," he said. "I am confident that we will continue to work hard and as my dad (Art Wedig) always told me, 'When you work hard, good things happen.'"
That level is the highest, a state championship, which has been reached once in school history. But with the principles of hard work, consistency and improvement firmly planted in this football program, the Chiefs will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the state.