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Believe - the story of 1976 DeSoto

I was sitting in a Culver's restaurant in Elkhorn, looking through a scrapbook of the 1976 DeSoto football championship. As I paged through the book, I found a 3x5 with the title "Believe". Below it, additional words were printed that were meant to motivate the reader. Each DeSoto player got their own copy of the 3x5 card. The cards were presented to the team by Coach Bob Schulz. In 1974 Schulz had presented the team with t-shirts. On the front of the shirt was printed "BELIEVE". The players wore them proudly during practice and their first game which was against La Crescent (MN). But, after a lackluster performance, a 16-8 loss, Coach Schulz ordered an 8am Saturday practice and told them to bring their BELIEVE t-shirts. He took the shirts back and then they practiced for an hour and he told them they would have more future Saturday morning workouts after they lost. Fortunately for the players they would only have one other Saturday practice over the next three years. That was in 1975 after a 25-24 loss to Kickapoo.

He was a tough disciplinarian using different things to motivate like the t-shirts. He could be volatile at times. IN 1975 the game wasn't going well. At halftime the team sat in the bus waiting on the coaches. The seniors took the window seats and made the underclassmen sit in the aisle seats. The coach then entered and began to rant. As he walked up and down the bus, he pounded the padded shoulders of those sitting near. Those that hadn't been through one of these outbursts were surprised but evidently not the seniors. In 1976, during a tough stretch of games, just before they were to play Royall, they were having a bad practice and the team was sent to the locker room. Then the coach came in and began yelling and tossing everything that wasn't nailed down. When he walked out, he went to his office. The team was silent in thought when one of the players made a derogatory comment toward Schulz and then the team dressed in a hushed murmur. The next day the coach was still in a foul mood and from then on the team practiced and played with the intensity to match that of their coach. Schulz worked especially hard to get his team ready for their regular rivals, Westby and Cashton. After the 1975 loss to Kickapoo, that team was also on his radar each season.

Motivation by Coach Schulz, like all coaches, is a way to get their players to go the extra mile. He could sometimes be referred to as a Vince Lombardi-type. Sometimes very fiery. Schulz gave the 3x5 card to the team just before DeSoto was to face Spring Valley in the opening round of the initial WIAA Class C championship playoff. The team was very quiet on the bus as they headed toward the showdown at La Crosse's Memorial Stadium. They had read the card and were in deep thought. A few blocks from the stadium Schulz got up and yelled "We are going to a football game, not a funeral, act like it" Afterall, Spring Valley was coming into the final with a 43-game win streak and they were listed as the #1 small school in the final AP poll. He told his players to lighten up and "Believe". The bus then exploded with noise and excitement. The team began to fire up. What the players would break up in their exuberance...lights, windows and seats...would be valued about $1500 in damage to the bus but the team was sure ready to play.

The 1975 season for DeSoto started very well with three big wins before they met up with a good Kickapoo. The DeSoto Pirates lost to the Panthers 25-24. Kickapoo trailed 16-13 at halftime before Bryan Mullendore scored twice in the second half, including a 91 yard sprint to the end zone with 5:24 remaining to move his team ahead 2516. Mullendore gained 241 yards and scored all four of Kickapoo's touchdowns on 42 carries as he carried the team on his back. DeSoto marched back down the field after the kickoff as senior Jerry Furilano took the ball in from nine yards out with 4:15 left. The try for the two-point conversion, and the win, failed. DeSoto didn't get the ball back and they fell to the eventual conference champions. The Pirates would finish in the second spot as they won their final five games and this was the start of a great 34-game winning streak.

Now it was 1976 and the team was ready to sweep their opponents aside. After two non-conference blowouts the Pirates were now geared to take the conference title. The start of the conference season was against Cashton, a team that Schulz considered one of the "big boys" and that he always primed the team to work hard against. That term was used to refer to schools that had bigger players. DeSoto never had many big players and as a result of evaluating how the team could best compete, Schulz dropped the wing-T with two flankers soon after he took over. Upon graduating from UW-River Falls in 1970 Schulz took a teaching/coaching position at Cadott. After one season there he learned of the DeSoto opening and he took a chance and interviewed. He passed the meeting with the administrator and started a 15 year run at the school. After the 1971 season he heard from UW-River Falls head coach Mike Farley who was switching his offense to the wishbone and he invited Schulz to bring a group of his players to a football camp to learn how the new offense worked. Coming away from the camp, Schulz was convinced that if he didn't have big players he would utilize their quickness and speed. It worked and for the rest of his career at DeSoto the wishbone would ravage the opposition. He also utilized the -3 defense most of the time and occasionally would switch to the "Raider" defense.

DeSoto blew by Cashton and now set their sights on Kickapoo to seek revenge for the previous season's loss. The Pirates took no mercy against the undefeated Panthers as quarterback Dale Mueller ran for two touchdowns and scored twice. Junior halfback Greg Furlano added two scored and three two-point conversions along with two interceptions as DeSoto blew out Kickapoo. Next up were the two other undefeated members of the Scenic Central Conference Northern Division, North Crawford and Westby. Both schools gave DeSoto some problems but Schulz and his team were up for the games as North Crawford went down 35-22 and Westby was done away with 28-25.

The "BELIEVE" t-shirts were back for the Westby game and that same word was also written on the players. In 1978 the coach brought out new t-shirts to motivate the boys. In a 60-30 LaFarge win over Seneca running back Vernon Daines carried 27 times for 271 yards, six touchdowns and two 2-pt conversions. The next week LaFarge felt confident coming into the DeSoto game but the Pirates would have nothing of it as they posted a 19-0 win. Defense was the key as they held Daines to 12 yards in 16 carries. When the game concluded the DeSoto players took of their jerseys and they had special t-shirts that read: "No Gaines for Daines". Schulz, always motivating his team.

DeSoto was the top rated Class C team in the AP polls coming into the 1976 Westby game and while they held on for dear life after taking a 28-19 halftime lead, players like Dale Mueller and middle linebacker Dave NIckelotti were the big stars. After the game, Coach Schulz told the La Crosse Tribune: "I believed in my kids. What else can I say. It didn't look good. But we pulled it off." What brought about the quote was the play of his Pirate defense late in the game when things looked dim. Westby had marched 63 yards to the DeSoto one-yard line. It was first and goal. All Westby needed was one yard. They ran four consectuvie times and failed to score. They even lost a yard. On first down Westby fullback Chris Dreves carried to within an inch of the goal line but was met by Nickelotti and defensive tackle Dave Malin. The same on the second, third and fourth downs. The defense held. The dejected Westby coach, Neil Hoven couldn't believe that his team could come so close to victory and yet it slipped through the team's grasp.

The next three games were really tune-ups to get the team ready for the chance to be in the inaugural WIAA playoffs. DeSoto pasted Royall 42-6 and New Lisbon 46-6 before demolishing Hillsboro 73-6. Like in all the blowouts DeSoto substituted very liberally, often using JV players who were suited up for the game. In the Hillsboro game, halfback Greg Furlano ran only four times but gained 134 yards, scored three touchdowns rushing, one other touchdown receiving and ran for three two-point conversions. Quarterback Dale Mueller passed for two total touchdowns and ran back a 40 yard interception for a touchdown. The starters sat down and rested in the second half as the reserves went in.

Around this time there was a bomb scare at the school and all students were told to evacuate. However, the announcement over the speaker was not only to leave in orderly fashion but that all football players were to first gather their gear before exiting the building! While the school was being searched, busses were pulled up for the players to enter and change into their practice uniforms and then they went to the field to workout. After the all-clear signal was given, it was so late in the school day that classes were halted. However, Schulz kept his players practicing and as a result the other students couldn't leave because the players school gear was inside the busses. When practice was concluded the players changed into their school clothes and the busses were finally loaded for the kids to head home.

DeSoto is a small village. If you look at a map you'll see that the team was a team of rivals. The school district covered an area along the Mississippi River starting with Ferryville in the south up to DeSoto in the center and Victory, Genoa and Stoddard to the north along with the small inland areas known as Retreat and REd Mound. Kids came from all over and Coach Schulz made agreements with parents who owned farms that pre-pratices would work around the student's chore schedule. There was also competition between the players to see how many starters from each village would get to play. Out of all the starters on the 1976 team, most came from Genoa, and most had attended St Charles Catholic School. The students and players were proud of their high school and proud of the area they came from.

Following the Hillsboro game there was a week off before the playoffs were to begin as several contender's teams still had games to play. DeSoto was 9-0 and ranked number 1. Spring Valley was also 9-0 and ranked #2 in the penultimate AP poll of the season. Westfield was 8-0, ranked #4 (tied with Fall Creek) and Wild Rose, 8-0 was ranked #8. In the final poll, DeSoto was dropped to the #2 spot and Spring Valley moved to 31. Westfield was moved to the Middle school rankings and ended #7 in the poll while Wild Rose moved up to #4 in the Small school poll. When the WIAA formulated the playoff schedule, Westfield was dropped tot he Class C grouping. Fall Creek, a Class C team that was 9-0, like other teams, failed to make the cut even though they were ranked #3, one spot ahead of Wild Rose. But the AP poll did not factor into the computer rankings the WIAA used which placed DeSoto, Spring Valley, Wild Rose and Westfield in the playoffs.

Leading by 10 points at half time, DeSoto made some adjustments and finished off Spring Valley to cruise to the playoff semi-final win before a crowd of more than 3000 fans. Shulz was proud of the team effort and felt that the only way anybody could beat his team would be if they beat themselves. Mueller, Furlano and Nickelotti were again the big stars but a lot of fired up players contributed in the 36-12 victory. Alan Bark and Dave Malin all played very well. Schulz was flying high in his exuberance about team's effort. He was quoted: "I think we played better teams this year-maybe one or two. I think North Crawford and WEstby were better on the nights we played them. Maybe they (Spring Valley) just had a bad night, but I think our players are better than theirs."

Wild Rose had held off Westfield in the semifinals, 34-30. Wild Rose led 34-8 and had sent in the reserves when Westfield made a furious comeback.

The temperature the night of the championship game was in the low 20s with winds blowing 10-15 mph. The players had no gloves or warm hats to wear except on the sidelines. Both coaches felt that turnovers would be the keys to winning the title that was set to be played at La Crosse Memorial Stadium, the scene of DeSoto's semifinal win and in friendly territory for DeSoto. Coach Schulz felt that his team's superior speed that they could overcome the Wild Rose offensive attack. As it turned out Wild Rose had a strong running attack, rushing for 292 yards vs DeSoto's 335 and the game was close, 20-14 going into the fourth period but the Pirates scored twice and won 34-14. One of those fourth quarter touchdowns was an 18 yard return of a fumble by Alan Bark, a score that sealed the victory. Dale Mueller carried only 12 times, but gained 145 yards and a touchdown with Greg Furlano chipping in with 100 yards on 11 carries and two second half touchdowns. Schulz heaped praise on just about every starter as he cited the front defensive line of Bark, Dave Malin, Curt Abbott and Curt Mikkelson. Nickelotti also received praise for his defensive play but he stated that he didn't think that he played all that well. Tackle Brad Jambois had been injured in the Spring Valley game but he came back and performed well. Back Kirk Laylan and end Errin McGinnis were also mentioned as well as Mueller and Furlano. It simply was a team effort as it had been all season long by the team of rivals.

You can see how dominant the team was by checking out the scores below:

Stats for the season were hard to come by as the main newspaper, the La Crosse Tribune, didn't print box scores. The following is the best info I could come up with. The big star of the 1976 season was Dale Mueller who ended up attending UW-River Falls. He was recruited as a running back. In his senior season at DeSoto he earned All-Coulee Area First Team (The Coulee area covered the surrounding La Crosse Region) as a back, having completed 36 of 74 passes for 979 yards and 16 touchdowns while rushing for 842 yards and 19 more touchdowns. The passing stats aren't a misprint. That's 27.2 yards per completion. He also had six interceptions and was named to the AP First Team All-State team as a defensive back. Mueller would graduate from River Falls as the school's all-time leader in rushing and scoring (since broken) with 2,885 yards and 44 touchdowns. Thanks to defenses keying on the DeSoto running game he was able to mix things up and hit his receivers, mainly to Erin McGinnis, who also earned First Team All-Coulee as a 6 foot 3 inch, 198 pound wideout (he was the biggest player on the team). From what I've been able to piece together, junior Greg Furlano had about 1,366 yards in total offense with 25 touchdowns and ran for 12 2-pt conversions. Dale Nickelotti was a demon on defense from his middle linebacker position. Standing only 5 foot 9 and weighing 165 pounds (teammates remember him as being even smaller) the senior Nickelotti totaled about 167 tackles and was named AP All-State Honorable Mention as a linebacker.

I recently had the chance to speak with Coach Schulz for about an hour on the phone. We talked about his career and especially the 1976 team. After leaving DeSoto he moved to Menasha as the head coach where he held that position for three years and then was an assistant for another twelve. Following his stay at Menasha he has been an assistant at Onalaska, Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau (G-E-T), Holman, Blair-Taylor and now back to Holman. He had several assistants over the years that were key to the DeSoto success. Among them were Paul Dritzkowski, Bart Gray, Rod Nelsestuen, and Gene Taylor. While at DeSoto, Coach Schulz directed the team to a 151-51 record and twelve conference championships earning a spot in the WFCA Hall of Fame. His 1983 and 1984 teams were Class 6 state champions and then, in the 1985and 1986 seasons they moved up to division 5 and finished as runner-up both seasons.

Finally, that 3x5 card that Coach Schulz gave to his players. Here's what it read:

Words that could motivate just about anyone.

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