I was still completing my first year of professional journalism (still a cub mind you) when I finally earned some coveted sports assignments in 1983 for the great Community Newspapers chain of suburban Milwaukee.
One of my first beats was the Brookfield East boys track team.
The team was coached by Mark Adams, who later led the Brookfield Central boys basketball program to serious glory and also helped out in the last years of Germantown’s great hoops run.
And that year, the Spartans’ greatest distance runner of all time Curt Anschuetz fulfilled all his potential. After finally earning his first WIAA state cross country title in the fall of 1982, he went on to win the D1 1,600 and 3,200 meter track titles (the later in a then D1 record time).
He had a tough-minded, solid teammate in Randy Bucheger, who was a reliable second runner in CC and also a state qualifier himself in track.
Later, the Spartan track program would be taken over by big-time track junkies Dennis Meyer and Mike Gain. They had a strong affection for both the 4 x 400 relay and quirky long sprinters and middle distance runners such as 400 champ Chris Hufschmidt of double-stuffed Oreos fame (see earlier post for details) and his teammate Daved Matz.
Those were fun days. Their Spartans didn’t win a lot of big championships but they always had talented individuals and were always well-represented at state. I always got a chuckle out of Gain’s trademark “Adios” sendoff at the end of every phone conversation and later Meyer turned out to be a heck of a girls’ cross country coach.
Gain was so well thought of that eventually the Spartans’ early spring outdoor track meet was named after him and for a time he was the meet announcer asking everyone to bundle up in the always cold weather.
After the pair got out of coaching, they turned to officiating and announcing and could always be counted on to be among the large staff helping to make the WIAA State Meet run as smoothly as possible.
Meyer developed a reputation as a hard-charging meet referee who ran a tight ship. If you’ve been involved in or covered a meet in southeastern Wisconsin that Meyer ran over the last few decades, you’ve probably been yelled at by him a few times to get out of the way!
Denny and I are good professional pals and even I got caught in his cross-hairs a few times over the years. I consider those moments badges of honor (lol)!
Which leads us up to 2010. The Spartans had been building for several seasons after coach Mike Steiner took over in 2004, eventually usurping powerful Menomonee Falls for the Greater Metro Conference title in 2010 and going on to finish a strong sixth at state that season, their best finish in years.
The end of the state finals on Saturday that year got a little drippy (naturally) and after collecting my notes I was on my way out when I found Steiner and a few of his staff under the eaves, staying dry and comparing notes.
We both jokingly yelled at Falls’ great free-spirited hurdler Matt Widule (who had won two titles that day) as he was chasing through in the rain to the souvenir tent to grab one more personalized t-shirt and then we had a quick chat. I wasn’t covering East at the time, but I was friendly with a lot of the coaches as I have a habit of staying close to old beats (a habit I happily still have).
The Spartans were pleased with their strong results and noted how many of these performers were coming back for 2011 and what that could bode for the future.
Which in the end turned out to be a great deal, as 2011 turned out to be the first of three straight D1 state team titles for East (a fourth would be earned in the epic season of 2016).
And in that great year of 2011, Meyer and Gain were working the state meet as usual and Bucheger was on the East staff coaching the distance runners. East was a dominant team throughout that season and came into the state meet favorites to win it all.
A status they happily embraced.
Looking back, Steiner said he was hoping for a high level of success, but what happened those next three years surprised even him.
“I never saw anything like this happening,” he texted me recently. “We take everything one day at a time. …It was a process of getting kids to believe and develop a love for the sport. It’s been very rewarding to see the program grow.
“…Kids have success and ultimately build confidence that they can compete at the highest level year in and year out.”
Which the Spartans proceeded to do.
East, behind individual titles from team co-captain Aaron Dillon in the triple jump and a capstone victory from the 4 x 400 relay team of Alex Howland, C.J. Gregg, Brad Johnson and Aaron Thompson, outscored ever-present Arrowhead, 57-39-1/3, for the crown.
“We knew we had a lot coming back,” said Steiner, “and then we had people like C.J. Gregg and Darius Barnes decide to come out and really contribute. There was a lot of heavy lifting that had to be done to get us this far.”
And having been associated tightly with the East program for so long, Gain and Meyer were the happiest of all, as they practically sprinted over to the awards’ podium on the infield to join in on the Spartan party.
“I didn’t cry, but I could have,” said Gain. “I’m just so extremely happy about this. All those great, nice kids of theirs. Denny and I thought it could happen, but then they went out and buried it.”
Meyer was so pleased that the Spartans were able to handle the favorites’ tag so well.
“That they were able to put this all together after having it hang over their heads all season was just amazing,” he said.
In short, it was a good, well-earned title and one of the people most impressed with the effort was Dan Benson, coach of the 2010 state champion Homestead team, which finished a sound fourth in 2011.
“I told those guys (Steiner and his staff) that as a veteran track coach and fan, it’s a great feeling when I see the best team in the state win state,” Benson said. “I felt it happened with Arrowhead two years ago (2009). I felt it happened last year with us and I knew it happened this year with them.
“They were a true track team.”
And East would remain so for quite some time.
SPEED RULES IN BAY
For years, Whitefish Bay has been known as a distance school with endlessly powerful cross country teams. Behind two-time 800 champ Steve Markson, the Blue Dukes even won the 4 x 800 twice and set a record in 2006.
The sprints hadn’t been a serious factor since the late 1960s and early 1970s when the late great coach Earl “Blackie” Zamzow led the Blue Dukes to three state D1 runner-up finishes.
But from 2010-12, speed came back to rule in Bay. Then coach Joe Saggio came in with the idea of building strong sprint relays. It began to bear fruit when the Blue Dukes set a school record in 2010 when they took third behind Menomonee Falls state record of 1:27.03.
Bay had some speed returning and young talent coming up, but Saggio knew there was only one way for the Blue Dukes to instantly vault to the top in the relays in 2011. That was to convince returning state placewinner in the 400-meters Davontae Johnson that it was in his best interests to run both the 4 x 200 and 4 x 100 relays instead.
It took a little doing, but it got done, and when Bay got done with its work in La Crosse, Johnson was certain he had made the right decision.
In the space of an hour the quartet of James Stecker, Johnson, Brandon Threats and Rashadeem Gray won both the 4 x 200 (1:27.29) and the 4 x 100 (41.93) with times that ranked in the then top five all-time state lists.
“This is unbelievable,” Johnson told me at the time. “The greatest way to sendoff my career. Look at the excitement, look at the fans (some 9,000-plus on Saturday). It’s all worthwhile. We came out, took care of business and won a pair of state titles.”
Saggio could not have been prouder of the senior Johnson for making the sacrifice of his open races for the benefit of the team.
“The relays created a special bond,” said Saggio. “We didn’t want to take away his (Johnson’s) shot at individual glory so it was important to show him how great it is to celebrate with teammates.
“It was so special to watch those tears of joy. To see someone like Davontae with his teammates. That means the world to me.”
WHAT A D2 BOYS MEET!
As I talked about in the girls 2011 post, this was a crazy, crazy good state meet with 24 total records set and the D2 boys was the home for five strong new marks as well as a few important names who started to make their climb (there was even a Watt from Pewaukee who rose to some prominence this year).
La Crosse Aquinas beat Green Bay Notre Dame for the title, 45-35.
*One of the most impressive new standards came from Jordan Schmidt of Kewaunee in the 110 high hurdles. He came into state with an unimpressive seed time of 15.06 but then went out and sliced up former NFL player Jared Abbederis of Wautoma’s two year old mark of 14.35 with an all-classes best of 14.12 that still sits comfortably in the all-time top five.
His hurdles mark is still the D2 record to this day and was a precursor to the great things Schmidt would go on to do at UW-Milwaukee.
Schmidt finished up a sensational collegiate career at the 2015 Horizon League Outdoor meet where he earned performer of the meet honors after winning both the 110 and 400 meter hurdles (second such title) and also being part of winning 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 relay teams (second crown on the 4 x 400). He also won 2015 Horizon League indoor crowns in the 60 hurdles and as part of the 4 x 400 relay.
His 2014 time of 51.32 in the 400 hurdles is still the UWM school record.
*Another durable D2 mark set that day that is still standing is the 4 x 100 record set by the West Salem 4 x 100 team of Jacob McCabe, Brandon Heilman, Josh Niebuhr and Alex Koenen, as it took down the 2006 standard of 42.66 set by a a Justin Austin-anchored (he of a record nine state titles) Brown Deer crew with a whisper quick 42.48.
*Ben Schreib of Greendale Martin Luther also had a heck of a meet, as made some serious history, repeating in the triple jump and in the process taking down the 26-year old D2 mark set by Joe Prestigiacomo of Monona Grove by just 1-1/2 inches with a 46-10 showing. He then bettered his personal best in the long jump by more than foot to win with a 22-11 effort.
Schreib had set a goal of getting the triple jump record and said the warm and windy weather on Friday of state was a big help.
“Finally we had some good weather to do it in,” he said. “It was nice for a change. It really made a big difference.”
He also had incentive for the record as he had been recruited by Wisconsin to compete on the team the following year and hoped to make a good impression to earn some highly prized scholarship money.
“If I perform, I’ll get some,” he laughed at the time.
*Also, in the rapidly evolving trend of 4 x 200 relay records disappearing almost as quickly as they are set, the Winneconne team of Cason Schroeder, Grayson and Travis Buyeske and Ryan Gardner flipped the year old record of Little Chute (1:29.31) completely on its head, bypassing the 1:28 range completely to become the first D2 team to run a in the 1:27s with an astoundingly quick 1:27.66 effort.
That record was also a hard one and lasted a good eight years.
*But in what was by far the most impressive event in all three classes this meet, not one, not two, but three performers in the D2 200 dash took down sprint legend Demi Omole of Dominican’s nine-year old record of 21.65! The honor of officially breaking the record (and still holding it to this day) went to Matt Gerber of Tomahawk, who edged 300 hurdles champ Thurgood Dennis of Green Bay Notre Dame, 21.40-21.44, for the title, while Winneconne’s Gardner also went under Omole’s mark to claim third (21.57).
The depth of the race was also absurd, as seven runners broke 22 seconds compared to only two in D1. Simply amazing!
WATT A FAMILY!!!!
Almost missed in D2 was the shot put competition. It wasn’t particularly spectacular, but the surname of the winner would get noticed as his older brother had also won the event in 2007 and another younger brother would claim still another championship for the family in 2013.
All three brothers would then have considerable fun and success and make tons and tons of money playing football.
Derek Watt of Pewaukee won that 2011 shot put with a toss of 56-9 1/2, beating Kevin Kitzman of Clinton by close to two feet. Four years earlier, older brother JJ Watt won with a throw of 59-11 1/4 but in 2013, “little” brother TJ Watt would outdo both of his older brothers by claiming the D2 crown for himself with a mighty heave of 60- 1/2.
All three went on to have storied football careers at Wisconsin and were drafted into the NFL. JJ Watt, as anyone with a pulse in Wisconsin knows, has had a Hall of Fame career as a defensive lineman with the Houston Texans. He has also made a great name for himself as a philanthropist lending his efforts to a wildly successfully ($37 million) fundraising effort to help Houston residents overwhelmed by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Derek was a fullback who was drafted by the San Diego Chargers but who earlier this spring, signed a lucrative free agent contract to join the Pittsburgh Steelers. There he joins brother TJ, who has been a standout outside linebacker for the Steelers.
JJ, who never misses an opportunity to play the put upon “big brother,” was very pleased for Derek and TJ but in a funny bit of faux dismay on social media noted that with TJ and Derek on the same team now, he is now on the outside looking in in the “Mom and Dad’s favorite team” sweepstakes!
And this summer, people can find even more of the Watt brothers as they have clearly had a ball tri-hosting the Fox Network’s summer game show “Ultimate Tag” where they showed they were able to share a microphone without having Mom or Dad having to break up a fight (lol)!
SCHIMENZ COMPETES HIS WAY ALL THE WAY TO BRAZIL
Jake Schimenz of Brown Deer came towards the end of a large family of highly competitive borthers (and one really terrific sister Maddie who is a heck of a basketball player) and so his motor always ran high playing football, basketball, track and summer baseball all through high school for the Falcons.
In college, he played four years of baseball successfully at Sterling College in Kansas, but still had an itch to compete, so he e-mailed an estimated 200-300 international football teams and landed in Brazil, where after learning a bit of Portuguese, he because the championship game MVP quarterback of his state runner-up team (he accounted for 29 total TDS in the 2017 season).
But before all that was his sophomore year in high school in 2011. Surprisingly, he was the fastest D2 qualifier out of sectionals in what was a very even 800 field. A state title would be cool but not expected because Schimenz had not even advanced to state in 2010.
However, as noted, Schimenz is competitive. No one really stretched out the race early and so it was still crowded going into the last 200. Schimenz wound up winning with a head-long sprint in 1:57.68 as four runners finished within .22 of a second.
He was stunned to say the least.
“I really didn’t think I could do this,” he said. “There were just so many fast runners in the race. Don’t get me wrong, I was still confident, but ….
“I went out and when we got towards the end, I felt a couple of guys right on top of me, but I was able to make a move and give it all I had.”
His event coach, former long-time Falcons swim coach Bob Van Lieshout was equally amazed.
“To the best of my knowledge, Jake was the only event winner at any level, boys or girls who had not qualified in their particular event last year,” Van Lieshout said. “Going from none to one is unbelievably difficult and quite an accomplishment.”
ROSHOLT OVERACHIEVES IN D3
Rosholt’s first WIAA state D3 boys championship was a sweet one for Hornets’ coach Mike Trzebiatowski.
He had led the Hornet girls to five D3 state track titles between 1989-2005 and was elected into the WISTCA Hall of Fame in 2005, but he had long been searching for that first boys crown.
And it took a strange confluence of events for the Hornet boys to get the job done in 2005 when they won by a whisker over hard-charging Gilman.
The Hornets got a victory out of its 4 x 800 relay of Owen Neff, Kyle Wallace, Jordan Yenter and Ryan Wierzba. It got points in other positions, but really vaulted itself into contention Saturday afternoon when Wierzba came out of the slow heat to win the 800. He had entered the race seeded 14th out of 16 competitors and dropped six seconds from his sectional time to take the title.
That win allowed the Hornets to maintain a 32-30 lead over defending champ Brookfield Academy (more on the Blue Knights later), but the real concern going into the final event was the 4 x 400 relay was Gilman. The Pirates, built around an all-senior quartet of powerful 400 runners, were the overwhelming favorites in that final relay.
Rosholt did have an entry in the race. It had been seeded seventh coming out of sectional qualifying but came out of Friday’s prelims in third. If Gilman won the race and the Hornets lived up to that seed seed, they would win state 38-34 over the Pirates.
But on a long championship Saturday everyone knows that while some kids get more motivated as the day wears on, others, especially in the smaller schools, get tired.
And the race’s drama was intense.
The Gilman quartet of Travis Gallick, Corey Tallier, Cody Rosemeyer and Cody Hodowanic lived up to its hype and took close to two seconds off of Burlington Catholic Central’s 2010 mark with a 3:23.55 time that cleared the rest of the field by 2.5 seconds. It still remains the D3 class record.
That left it up to the Rosholt team of the fresh Derek Budsberg, and the battle tested Neff, Wallace and the ever busy Wierzba, to secure at least a seventh place finish to tie Gilman or a sixth place showing to win by a point.
As it turned out, every relay in the 10-team D3 final improved dramatically from its preliminary time, and while the Hornet team was pretty tired, it was still pretty motivated as the Hornets improved by close to four seconds. They earned sixth, just .22 of a second ahead of seventh place Wausau Newman and in doing so earned that first elusive title for their coach, 35-34, over Gilman.
WILLIS LEAVES IN A BURST OF LIGHTNING
Fred Willis of Brookfield Academy led the Blue Knights to a dominating D3 state team title in 2010, and the team had a fair amount coming back including himself, but injuries on the small team prevented a serious run at a repeat.
But that didn’t prevent Willis from going out with a bang. He went out with three more titles including two D3 state records. In the most impressive effort of the weekend, Willis, who finished his career with six state D3 titles, joined with Ethan Jaynes, Max Wrenn and Ryan Send to break the 4 x 100 record not once, but twice.
It turned out that the only way they were going to win the relay was with a record as in the first trials’ heat on Friday, Whitehall took .1 of a second off Edgar’s divisional mark with a 43.44 effort. But just 3 minutes and 40 seconds later, Academy had the record in its hands with a 43.32 showing.
And the Blue Knights would hang onto that record and improve upon it, burying it for the foreseeable future with an amazing 42.51 showing in the finals that still stands.
Earlier in the meet, Willis had repeated as 100 champ with a 10.82 time (he had set the year’s best of 10.5 at a meet earlier in the year) and then he closed out his prep career on another high note, slicing .08 of a second off the standard set by the great Marcus Ver Duin of Howards Grove in 2002 with a 21.81 effort.
Not bad for someone who hadn’t tried track until a few years ago, which was something his Mom figured he would be good at.
“Ever since I was born, she always said I was good in anything that I ever tried,” Willis laughed after his last trip to the top of the podium following his 200 record. “I just decided to give track a shot. Try something new.”
And that is the way the great 2011 state meet was on both the boys and girls side with its still startling 24 state records, and personalities galore. It is still memorable for many good reasons.
Bay’s Saggio tried to explain this major wave of excellence across all disciplines.
“I think it’s because the coaching has become so good,” he said. “Coaches know when to pull back on their kids and when to let them loose. You have to adapt in Wisconsin, to the weather, to the short season.
“It’s sometimes hard to do, but they (we) manage to pull it off.”
And they would do so again in 2012.
UP NEXT: The girls pole vault keeps rising, Riverside runs to history in the 4 x 400, and Fuller-Stewart and Smith-Jenkins go out as champions. Also, Edgar improves on its already vast record of excellence again and Seidel and Blahnik make some more history.