1897 madison team picture.png

The 1990s had many football programs that were consistently very strong during these years. I discussed Menomonie and Monroe in my book. Some others were Stanley-Boyd (two state titles and one runner-up spot), Darlington (two state titles and four runner-up spots), Edgar (two titles and two runner-up spots), Lancaster (one title and one runner-up spot), Mayville (one title and two runner-up spots) and Hartland Arrowhead (three state titles). Several of these teams continued to be successful moving into the next century.

Another team that had great success was Columbus. Coach John Titus built a powerhouse and the players felt a strong sense of tradition. The 1990 state championship team started building the 1990s tradition and it became easy to keep it going. Tradition became a way of life.

Titus, his assistants and the players studied opponent's game film weekly. On their 4-4 defense it wasn’t uncommon for the Columbus players to recognize what the opponents play was coming and to yell out to the others what was about to happen. It amazed the opposition. They ran a I-Formation, no-huddle offense which was uncommon for the time. The offensive players had a laminated wrist chart and the play was called at the line of scrimmage. The players comradery was so strong that they had a weekly Thursday night gathering as one of the players would host in their home the entire team for a spaghetti dinner. After each game there would be a victory party at the coach’s house or another player’s home. The school didn’t have great facilities or a great weight room but the players and the people around the team were stayed very close which kept them playing hard not just for themselves but for each other.

The 1990 team wanted to shed the “bridesmaid” label and win the Capitol Conference title. Their last title was a shared one in 1977 (in Titus’s second season) when they tied with Waunakee. Now they wanted it all to themselves. The Cardinals marched through the season posting nine shutouts, giving up only 39 points as all-conference defensive lineman Brandy Mietzel had 18 sacks and all-conference defensive end Jeff Shilly posted another 15. On offense they scored 379 points led by three all-conference players: junior Scott Kirchberg with over 1,200 yards rushing. Senior Jeff Zittel added over 900 yards and senior quarterback Jamie Titus passed for about 1,159 yards. Other stars on the team, those that also made the All-Capitol Conference team were center/defensive lineman Joe Vole and defensive back Mark Barkow. Jeff Shilly was also all-conference as an offensive end. Their camaraderie helped build the program into a powerhouse and take home the 1990 Division 4 trophy. Since 1977 coach Titus heard the whispers that his job was in jeopardy because the team couldn’t win the conference title. Now those whispers went away with not only the conference title but the big trophy.

1991 rolled around and the Cardinals posted an 8-2 season, winning a second consecutive Capitol Conference championship and making the playoffs but losing in the first round to Mayville.

In 1992 the team roared out of the gate to an 11-0 record and a third conference title. Led by an All-State quarterback Ben McCormick who passed for 2,212 yards on 137 completions in 252 attempts and 27 touchdowns. He had only 10 interceptions on the season but five of them were in the Level 3 game against Mayville. So, the season ended with an 11-1 record, scoring 417 points and allowing only 54.

The Cards again won the championship of the Capitol Conference and swept through the 1993 regular season with a 9-0 record but lost to Viroqua to end 9-1.

In1994 the team started well and ended with a 9-2 record, winning their fifth consecutive conference championship.

In 1995 the Cardinals made it to the championship round of the playoffs losing the final game to Stanley-Boyd 21-0. After leading the Cardinals to the state title in 1990 Scott Kirchberg died in an auto accident in June 1991. He was on pace to set the school career rushing record but it was not to be. Now, four years later his brother Joe was the back-up quarterback and his team was in the finals. This team was not the high scoring 1990 team as they scored 243 points and allowed 122. Their 37-game conference winning streak ended early in the season in a 13-0 loss to Lake Mills. Junior Nate Roberts led the team with an astounding 365 carries, gaining 1,638 yards with 15 touchdowns. With the talent the team showed, even being shutout against Stanle-Boyd didn’t hold back fans from thinking 1996 would be their year.

Starting in early August, the 1996 edition Columbus Cardinals started to develop into a tough championship team. They had a chip on their shoulders and they were determined to win the title. Nate Roberts was the leader carrying the ball 380 times for 1,760 yards for 42 touchdowns. Against Westby, Roberts carried the ball 43 times for 147 yards and four scores. In one crucial drive he put the team on his shoulders and carried 13 consecutive times for 42 yards. He had 821 career carries for 3,843 yards and 57 td's. In the championship game junior linebacker Josh Burbach blocked two Stanly-Boyd punts that led to touchdowns. The Cards ended up flipping the script on Stanley-Boyd, winning 21-0 for their second state title of the decade as well as winning their seventh consecutive Capitol Conference title. Coach Titus earned AP Coach of the Year honors and Nate Roberts won honorable mention all-state.

The 1997 season brought changes to the Columbus program. Coach Titus left and Ivan Thies took over and the team posted a 9-3 record and for the first time in eight seasons the Cards finished second in the Capitol Conference. The team made it to the Level 3 round of the playoffs against Darlington. It was a strange feeling on both sidelines as the two teams had rookie coaches. Darlington’s Doug McArthur had stepped away to go into private business and left the program after posting a 13-year 117-37 record with four overall state titles and three runner-up awards. Titus posted in 21-years a 151-58 record with two state titles, one runner-up finish and eight conference titles.

In 1998 the school posted a 6-4 record and finished second in the conference.

To close out the decade the Cardinals had a 7-3 record in 1999. Over the 10 years of the 1990s the Columbus football program had a sparkling 98-18 record and made the state playoffs all 10 season. They truly had one of the best records in the state for that period.

Starting in 1952 the Eau Claire Leader and later the Leader-Telegram newspaper began naming an annual All-Northwest Football team. The team consisted of players from the newspaper’s coverage and largely defines the "Northwest" area of the state.

When the WIAA playoffs started in 1976 the title games were played around the state at different venues until 1984 when all the games were moved to one location, Camp Randall Stadium. Between 1977 and 2000, a team from Northwest Wisconsin took home a title in all except one year, 1983. There were just three seasons, 1983, 1994 and 1996, that a team from the Northwest did not take home the Division 6 title. In 1983 Osseo-Fairchild finished second to Peshtigo, losing 7-0 in the title game. In 1994 Thorp (11-2) lost to Hilbert 34-6 and in 1996 Greenwood (11-3) lost to Hilbert 35-15.

Before all the state title games were moved to Madison only one championship game was played in the Northwest region and that was in 1977, a game between Division 4 squads Osseo-Fairchild and Stanley-Boyd. The site was in Eau Claire at Carson Park, the main high school football stadium in the area. At that time only four teams in each Class were allowed in the playoffs. There were four playoff divisions…AA, A, B and C. In Class C there were three teams from the region that went 9-0…Osseo-Fairchild, Stanley-Boyd and Fall Creek. The convoluted selection process eliminated Fall Creek from playoff consideration. The two 1977 teams battled and Osseo-Fairchild came out on top, 14-0 and the team was able to extend their winning streak to 26-games.

Overall, there were 144 championship games played between 1976 and 2000. In the first 25-years of the playoffs the region produced 40 champions across all divisions (27.7% of all the title trophy’s that were handed out). No Northwest team took home a Division 1 trophy so if you take out the 25 D1 teams from the total championships won the percentage of title holders jumps to 33.6%. No team from the Northwest has advanced to the Division 1 title game in the history of the playoffs. This, of course, has a lot to do with the relatively few Division 1 schools in the area. Eau Claire Memorial, Eau Claire North, Hudson and Chippewa Falls have yet to make it to Madison. Superior (about as north and west as you can get in the state) made it to the title game twice in 1988 (11-2) as the runner-up and in 1990 (12-1) as the champion, but they are not in the Leader- Telegram Northwest coverage area.

The region produced the following champions between 1977 and 2000:

In the past 19-seasons (2001-2019) the number and percentage of Northwest teams has dropped. 20 teams won the title out of 132 trophies, a 15.5% and no team made it to the finals. There were 25 other teams that placed second in the championship games during the 1976-2000 timeframe and 15 teams in the period of 2001-2019. The first 25-years earned the Northwest region the nickname of the “Area of Football Champions”.

Between 1985 through 1999 Northwest Wisconsin football teams dominated the WIAA Division 6 state title game. Other than in 1995 and 1997 when Hilbert won the titles schools from the Northwest took home the top trophy.

From 1972-76 Spring Valley had a great win streak of 43 games which was the second longest in state history up to that time. The Cardinals also won the Division 5 title in 1978. They were known as the 1970s small-school capitol of Wisconsin. After coach Bob Thomas left in 1986 to become an assistant at UW-Stout the program had its ups and downs. Coach Duane Jourdeans took over the program in 1998 and the team went 7-4, losing to Glenwood City 39-30 in the second round of the Division 5 playoffs. Spring Valley had also finished in second place to Glenwood City in the Small Dunn-St. Croix Conference. Tom Sauve, as a freshman, played wide receiver for Spring Valley. He scored a crucial touchdown in the Glenwood City game on a 45-yard reception to get his team closer to victory, but ultimately fell short even as the Spring Valley Cardinals scored 18 fourth-quarter points. They just ran out of time. The next season in 1999 produced a disappointing 3-5 record. This motivated the 2000 team to make a fresh start.

As 2000 rolled around many of the players were ashamed of the 1999 team’s performance and they dedicated themselves to the weight room. They worked on both strength and developing speed. It was a fresh start for the team. Josh Gokey was one of the players who wanted to wipe away the memories of the past season. Standing at 6’, 175-pounds, Gokey was intent on making his senior season the best he could especially now that he was one of the team captains. Gokey ran for 711 yards in 1999 while 6’2, 180-pound junior Tom Sauve, who had been switched to the quarterback spot, tossed for 536 yards. The team, as a whole, did not have many 200-pound plus players but they were for the most part tall and quick and that made the difference against larger opponents. When the coaches in the Dunn-St. Croix Conference voted in the summer as to who they thought would finish on top for the up-coming season, Glenwood City was picked as the #1 team followed by Elk Mound in the second spot with Spring Valley rated in the third position. In the August 24, 2000 edition of the Eau Claire Leader Telegram writers Ron Buckli and Kirk Holmes picked Boyceville to beat Spring Valley in the season opener. The Cardinals had a lot to prove to the rest of the conference and the writers up north. They became a team on a mission.

The season started well with a 26-13 “upset” win over Boyceville. As the defense held down the opponents touted passing attack of Dewey Mariette to Jesse Schmidt. Gokey led the way with 222 yards on 38 carries and two touchdowns with a two-point run. Sauve had a miserable night as he was only three of seven for 28 yards and two picks. Things would get better as the season progressed.

There were many good performances by the stars of the Spring Valley team. Among them were:

Against Colfax, Gokey had another good game, rushing 19 times for 165 yards and two scores and a two-point conversion.

In the first Elk Mound game Spring Valley scored 28 unanswered points to win 41-13 as the passing combination of Tom Sauve to tight end Troy Timm came into its own. Sauve passed 14 times with 11 completions, 220 yards and five touchdown passes. He also caught an interception that he returned 40-yards. Timm caught four passes for 89 yards and three touchdowns. You would have thought gaining 402 yards and holding Elk Mound to 13 points and 219 yards would make coach Jourdeans happy but he wasn’t satisfied and strove to make the team better.

The team was focused against Elmwood as the defense held them to 71 total yards and they rolled up 419 yards in the 40-0 win. Gokey was again very good, rushing for 184 yards on 20 attempts, scoring one touchdown and a two-point run.

With the Glenwood City win Spring Valley moved into the #2 spot in the AP Small School poll. It should be noted that once the WIAA started the playoff system in 1976 the polls only served as a guide for fans and others to get a feel for who might make the playoffs and did not “crown” a mythical champion.

In the 40-0 shutout of Plum City. Gokey and Sauve were great. Gokey picked up 106 yards on the ground with two scores as well as catching a touchdown pass. Sauve passed for 160 yards, three touchdowns as well as returning a missed field goal 91-yards. Timm caught two passes and turned both into td’s. The following week the Cardinals cruised to a 49-12 victory over Pepin. Tom Sauve had a big game, throwing 19 passes for 16 completions, one interception, 251 yards and four more touchdowns. Gokey gained 160 yards on 13 carries and two scores on the ground and one through the air.

In the second Elk Mound game Sauve completed seven passes in 11 attempts for 146 yards and three touchdowns and rushing only three times for 74. He had a 64-yard td run to start the games scoring. He also returned an interception33-yards for a touchdown. Gokey rushed for 92 yards on nine attempts and caught two passes for 100 yards. He didn’t score a touchdown but his play set up most of the other scores.

The second Elmwood win and regular season ending game led Spring Valley to the #1 spot in the final AP poll but somehow the WIAA ranked them #2 in the region for the playoff berths. The Cardinals opened the playoffs with a 69-0 crushing pf Clayton. Junior receiver Casey Kannel scored on a 53-yard pass play, a 67-yard run and tossed 31-yard td. Sauve was five of seven for 113 yards and two touchdowns plus rushing six times for 76 yards and three touchdowns. Josh Gokey chipped in with 110 yards on six carries and one rushing touchdown plus scoring on a 67-yard interception.

For the Level 3 it was a match-up between two unbeaten teams as Spring Valley went to play Prairie Farm and the Cards came out as a 35-16 winner. It was another dominating performance as It wasn’t until the last 2 ½ minutes of the fourth quarter that Prairie farm was able to score. Suave went 6-9-1-134-4 passing and Gokey ran 19-185 and a 90-yard score with only 3 ¼ minutes into the game. Kannel was on the short and the long end of catching two passes as he hauled in a one-yard touchdown in the second period and a 61-yard reception in the third quarter.

With their next win, a shutout over Necedah, the Cardinals had swept through 13 games and a date on Thursday, November 16 at 10AM in Camp Randall Stadium against 13-0 Highland, another team on a mission.

Tyler Laufenberg passed away in the spring after suffering a lifelong battle with heart and lung diseases. As a 13- year-old, Tyler was a friend, manager and long-time fan of Highland football and the team dedicated the season to Tyler’s memory. The team also played on a new football field during the season, named Tyler Field after the young boy. Because of WIAA requirements they wouldn’t have been able to host a playoff game so they were blessed with replacing the 50-year-old stadium with the new facility. On the Friday before the title game, a 12-6 win over Black Hawk was very emotional for the team. The victory came on what would have been Tyler’s 14th birthday.

The battle began and even though Spring Valley would gain 299 yards in total offense they turned the ball over seven times, five on interceptions. They still were able to pull the victory out in a 8-0 win. Yes, the high scoring offense was nearly shut out but they did that to the Highland Cardinals. Highland was held to a total of 35 yards…41yards on the ground and -6 yards passing. The key to the game was an interception by Sauve on a halfback option that Highland coach Joel Oleson said was a bad call on his part. That play would help set up Sauve’s 31st touchdown pass of the season as he hit Troy Timm with a 57-yard pass for the only score of the game in the second period. Seven times Spring Valley had the ball inside the Highland 20-yard line but they came up empty. It was the defense that came to the rescue as they took the title.

For the year Junior quarterback Tom Sauve passed 166 times with 95 completions with 14 interceptions, 1,788 yards and 31 touchdowns. He picked up 601 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. He was named to the first team all-conference and his passing yards led the Northwest. Senior running back Josh Gokey rushed 262 times for 1,886 yards, tops in the Northwest, with a total of 22 touchdowns and 154 points. Gokey earned first team all-conference. Senior tight End Troy Timm another first team all-conference member caught 32 passes for 672 yards and 12 scores. Junior receiver Casey Kannel caught 17 passes for 480 yards and nine td’s while making all-conference second team as a defensive back. Junior defensive lineman Cyrus Anderson led the team with 145 tackles and 26 sacks. Junior linebacker Tyler Turner made first team all-conference and junior offensive linemen Travis Miller and Ben Rudesill along with senior kicker/punter Jon Gokey (twin brother of Josh) were named to the second team. Seven other spots on the honorable mention list had Cardinals names on it.

Before the season started the members of the Spring Valley football team made a pledge and put it on paper. Most signed it. Their mission for the season was two things: Win the Small Dunn-St. Croix Conference title and to win the state title.

Mission accomplished.