One of my favorite pieces of Christmas music is Andy Williams’ version of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
That song is about Christmas. This column is not. It’s about what begins Thursday in Belmont, Friday afternoon in Darlington, and Friday night in Richland Center and Shullsburg — the high school version of football, our greatest American sport. (Wisconsin, UW–Platteville and the Packers can wait for another week or two.)
I can make that bold statement because of my own high school career on fall Friday nights, where I played … trumpet. Not until I covered an almost-playoff run for my alma mater, Madison La Follette, in 1987 (four years after I graduated), and then Cassville’s run to the game before state (the worst to lose) in 1988, and then Lancaster’s first playoff berth in 1989, I had never even experienced a winning high school football team.
To borrow Howard Cosell’s autobiography title, I never played the game. The combination of bad vision (before I got contact lenses as a freshman), hideous hand–eye coordination and general lack of interest in exerting myself physically … well, there was no position, even water boy, for me. If my father the high-school end (and state champion relay runner) was disappointed, he didn’t say anything, probably because my parents could tell from watching me that walking would be a challenge, let alone blocking or tackling, or running with or after, or throwing or catching a football. My high school’s football team won, in order, three, one, one and four games in my four years of high school, despite having a lineman who ended up playing for Wisconsin and in the NFL. Football is a team game, and unfortunately the future Badger and Patriot couldn’t be cloned.
I freely admit I lacked what coaches seek (other than basic athletic ability, of course) — desire. So I admire high school athletes who do have that desire to excel and do better than they most recently did, particularly those who have that drive without a coach yelling at them. (That finally showed up for me in college after five years of UW Marching Band director Mike Leckrone yelling at me.)
It is not a brilliant deduction on my part to say that this football season will not be like last season. It is practically impossible to top last season, with four Southwest Wisconsin schools playing at state, one of them, Black Hawk, bringing home a gold trophy. Yes, Darlington blew through the Southwest Wisconsin Activities League, and Lancaster was its usual dominant self in the Southwest Wisconsin Conference, but you still have to win games number 10 through 13 on your schedule to get to state. (And all four teams The Journal covers got to game number 10 for the second consecutive year, which is an accomplishment.)
Then there’s Platteville. Twelve months ago, there was talk about, if things went well, maybe sharing the SWC title with Lancaster. Eleven months ago, things having not gone well, the idea of getting into the playoffs seemed unlikely — four of five wins needed, two of those against teams that had already beaten the Hillmen. And then 10 months ago, having won four of those five games, mission accomplished, or so fans thought.
Let us all hope no football team has to play another team three times in one season, even though it worked out fine for the Hillmen. After that, though? A win at Brodhead, a team that has often ended Platteville’s season. And then a trip to Walworth and undefeated and number-one-seeded Big Foot. I can only imagine what fans following Division 4 thought when they heard “Platteville 7, Big Foot 2” on radio scoreboard shows or the 10 p.m. TV sports that night. And then a trip to Watertown to play Manitowoc Roncalli, where, as you know from the photo in the Nov. 20 edition of your favorite weekly newspaper, an interception with 20 seconds left preserved Platteville’s 22–15 win and as most improbable a trip to state as you have ever seen. (Other than Winneconne’s to set up the Division 4 Cinderella Bowl, which will probably end up inspiring scores of high school football teams in future seasons — you can have a losing regular record and get to state!)
High school football has always been big in states like Texas, Ohio and Florida. I don’t know if Wisconsin high school football has gotten bigger, but it has gotten better. More Wisconsinites are playing college football, and there is certainly a larger variety of offenses being played on Friday nights, instead of just the Wing-T (Platteville’s offense under Mark Berg) and the option (still played in Lancaster).
So what about this year? Platteville and the rest of the SWC are back to just five conference games, making everyone’s magic number three for a postseason berth, once the SWC season starts. Thanks to the June 16 EF2 tornado, there is no Six Rivers Jamboree this season (hopefully it returns next year, and Platteville is playing “home” games at Cuba City and at Potosi, with just two actual home games on the schedule this year. That’s a challenge one season after the Hillmen got to play the toughest schedule in the state of Wisconsin, with seven of their nine conference teams against teams that made last year’s playoffs. That did work out OK for the Hillmen.