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Former Darlington and UW–Platteville standout dies of cancer at 48
Aaron Lancaster trophy
Prior to helping UW–Platteville win the 1995 NCAA Division III national championship, Aaron Lancaster led Darlington to the 1990 Class C State championship as a senior in high school.
Lancaster color
Aaron Lancaster was an assistant coach for the Darlington boys when they finished second at the 2017 WIAA Division 4 state tournament.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Athlete of the Week is a web-only feature that will publish each Thursday throughout the calendar year.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This week the Athlete of the Week feature takes a step away from current area athletes to remember one of the greatest local prep and college athletes to ever compete in this area. Aaron Lancaster, of Darlington High School and UW–Platteville, died from cancer Saturday, March 13.

Aaron Lancaster, Darlington principal, asst. boys basketball coach, DHS and UW–Platteville alumi
DARLINGTON — Southwest Wisconsin lost a legend last Saturday when Aaron Lancaster lost his battle with cancer. 

But, like most legends, his memory and the impact he had on the community will continue to live on.

A larger-than-life presence as an athlete, educator, coach and family man, Lancaster, 48, dedicated his life towards striving to be the best while also taking care of others and helping them succeed as well. 

Those who feel that nice guys finish last never met someone like Aaron because not only did he make it a habit of finishing first, he did so with kindness, respect and integrity.

Everywhere Lancaster went he was a winner — that is until he met an opponent that was as relentless as it is heartless. Cancer didn’t play fair. It never does.

A four-sport athlete at Darlington High School from 1985-90, Lancaster excelled, whether it was on the gridiron, the basketball court, the track or the diamond. He was a member of the Redbirds’ first state championship football team as a sophomore in 1987, and a key member of the Redbirds’ only state basketball championship team as a senior in 1989–90.

During his senior season, he guided the Redbirds’ football team to a WIAA Division 5 state semifinal appearance as the team’s quarterback, led the Redbirds’ basketball team to a Class C state title with a 58–44 win over Eleva–Strum as a guard, advanced to the Class C state track and field championships in multiple events for the second consecutive season as a sprinter and batted a hefty .667 with six home runs and 21 runs batted in while playing in just 11 summer baseball games with the Redbirds.

Lancaster competed in the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Shrine Bowl football game and the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association All-Star Basketball Game the summer following his senior year.

“What made Aaron a great athlete also made him a great person,” said Mike Hopkins, who coached the Redbirds to the state title in 1990. “It was not just talent, but an innate goal of seeking excellence. That is, in whatever he did, being an athlete or being a friend or being a teacher or being a coach or being a father or being a husband or being a principal, Aaron always demanded the most of himself and never did anything haphazardly.

“That is why he was such a great leader and role model. He truly walked the talk and could demand the best from others. Thus, he made me want to become a better basketball coach 30 years ago, as well as a better teacher in the last few years I taught before retiring.”  

After graduating from DHS, Lancaster, the son of Bob (Diane Berget) Lancaster and Janice (Al) Ruf, took his athletic skills to Northern Iowa on a football scholarship. 

He spent a year and a half with the Panthers’ program before transferring to UW–Platteville to pursue his first love — basketball- — joining the Pioneers’ men’s basketball team under the direction of Hall of Fame coach Bo Ryan.

Lancaster played in 86 of the 87 games the Pioneers competed in during his three years on the team, starting all 59 games his junior and senior seasons. The Pioneers posted a 78–9 record with Lancaster on the team, including a 31–0 finish during the Pioneers’ 1995 NCAA Division III National Championship run.

UW–Platteville defeated Manchester (Ind.) College, 69–55, in Buffalo, N.Y., in the title game with Lancaster scoring nine points and pulling down a game-high 10 rebounds in the victory. He had 13 points and 11 rebounds in the Pioneers’ 82–59 semifinal win over Trinity (Conn.) College.

Lancaster averaged 10.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game for the Pioneers in their championship season and led the team with 105 assists and was second in steals with 46. 

Lancaster was named to the NCAA Division III Final Four All-Tournament team, and was also selected to the All-Wisconsin State University Conference first team.

Lancaster started his teaching and coaching career at Highland High School serving as history teacher and then guidance counselor at the school, while also coaching the Cardinals’ football team as well as the girls’ and boys’ basketball teams. 

Aaron married his wife, Denise Osterday, in August 1999, and the couple had three sons who Aaron absolutely adored, Carter, Cannon and Coby.

Lancaster kept his competitive spirit alive competing for many years in the Home Talent baseball league with Wiota and Dodgeville during his 20-year playing career.

He was a key member of all three of Wiota’s HTL championship teams in 1992, 1995 and 2004, and always seemed to rise to the occasion when it mattered most for Wiota.

“AL” or “Train” homered and scored a run in a title-sealing 4–1 win over Oregon to claim the Indians’ first-ever championship honor in 1992, and he drove in all three runs in a 3–2 victory over Jefferson. which secured the Indians their final title in 2004.

“He was a top-notch player. He was an excellent hitter and an excellent fielder,” said Wiota coach Dick Schliem. “He was very good at helping the younger players. His attitude rubbed off on everybody. He had a great effect on our teams.”

Lancaster put away his cleats when it came time to coach his sons’ sports teams growing up from Cal Ripkin Baseball and Little League teams to traveling basketball teams. 

In 2010, Lancaster became principal at the Pecatonica School District in Blanchardville, where he served five years and continued to coach girls’ basketball and was also a football assistant coach. 

In 2015, Lancaster returned home to Darlington where he became principal at his alma mater. He proudly served as an assistant basketball coach for the team which he once won a championship with; and, in 2017, he helped lead the Redbirds’ to their second state tournament appearance and a state runner-up finish in Division 4. 

Lancaster also had the honor to coach his oldest son, Carter, during his four years of high school basketball. This past year he was able to see Carter pass his own scoring mark of 1,391 points to become the second all-time career scorer in Redbirds’ history. Carter finished his senior year with 1,631 points.

The lives Lancaster touched as a husband and father, as a teammate and friend, and as a teacher and coach during his 48 years on Earth were numerous, and his stories and lessons will continue to be passed around the communities he loved and dedicated his life to. 

The line from the movie “The Sandlot,” may have said it the best: “...there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered but legends never die.”