1976 was a pivotal season in Wisconsin high school football. As you may know, the WIAA started the football playoff system for the public schools. The private school’s playoffs began in 1969. The most powerful conference in the state may have been the Wisconsin Valley as year in and year out they produced some of the best teams in the late 1960s and 1970s, namely Antigo and Schofield DC Everest. Because they seemed to dominate the WVC it is not to say that the rest of the conference were slouches.
From 1966-1976 the Red Robins won 88 games and lost only 9, a .907 percent win record. The 1968, 1969, 1972, 1973 and the 1975 teams all went 9-0-0, finishing #2 in the 1969 AP poll while finishing #1 in both polls for 1972, 1973 and 1975. But these were polls for mythical championships.
1976 would prove to be a major highlight in the school’s program and coach Gordy’s career now that the WIAA had instituted a post-season playoff system. The day before the season opener the Wausau Daily Herald reported that the Red Robins were expected to win the conference after they had posted a 9-0 record in 1975. They had won or shared the last four conference titles, going 38-1 on that span. In the previous 14 seasons under Schofield and posted a 96-14-2 record and now they were rated #1 in the state as they began the year. Returning for his senior season was quarterback Dan Thorpe who had directed the Red Robbins to a 17-1 record and had been first team all-conference as a defensive back as a junior. Another key returnee was 6’3 and 225 pound offensive/defensive end Dean Seis. Overall, they didn’t look that tough on paper but the Antigo Red Robins were THE team to beat in the Valley.
Picked as the #2 team in the Valley, D.C. Everest was the season opening foe for Antigo and it was a hard-fought defensive battle but the team dispelled any doubt as to what they were about. They were the same hard running team as junior fullback Pat Bradley took up the slack as he carried 23 times for 132 yards and scored the only touchdown, a 7-yard run along with a two-point conversion, in the 8-0 win. It was a typical Red Robin game as they gained 188 yards on the ground and only 8 yards passing while allowing only 92 total yards. It would be a typical defensive game as Antigo intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble. They had now won their 15th consecutive game and they were now off to the races, sort of.
You see, this was probably the lowest scoring playoff championship team in history. The Red Robins would go on to score only 189 points in 11 games (A low 17.18 points per game) while allowing only 51 points (A 4.64 per game average), a low for any championship playoff team (11 game schedule or more). For much of the season Antigo was rated #1 in the polls but were eventually overtaken for the top spot by Racine Horlick. While they didn’t overpower teams with their scoring it was their defense that dominated. Offensively the team gained only 2,608 yards on the season, a scant 230.09 yards per game while on defense they allowed only 1,255 yards (114.09-yards per game). In five games they scored in the double digits and allowed only three teams to break the 10-point barrier. It was truly not about the numbers except when it came to defense and wins.
In the first four games the team only scored 8, 34, 8 and 8 points. They allowed 0, 12, 0 and 3 points. Several former players point to the fourth game, an 8-3 win over Marshfield, as maybe their toughest game. Dan Thorpe was hurt in the first half and was taken from the field with a concussion. He was a key person on the team being the starting quarterback and defensive back. Tom Meyer stepped in and helped lead the team to the win. Statistically Antigo out gained Marshfield 227-123 but they had two first half touchdowns called back before Thorpe was hurt. One was a 31-yard run by Thorpe and the other was a 38-yard TD aerial by Tom Meyer who had replaced the hurt Thorpe as the quarterback spot. Marshfield kicked a field goal with 7:40 left in the second period to take a 3-0 lead over the #1 ranked Red Robins. In the fourth quarter they drove 73-yards, mainly on the back of 5'6, 154-pound Bill Igl who carried the ball 11of the drives 17 plays. Bradley scored from six yards out and Meyer converted the extra point run for the lead and the victory. The win showed everybody that this was a determined team, one that came together under Coach Schofield’s direction. The team had confidence in themselves and the program, traits taught by their head coach who was not big or tall in stature but one who was able to get his players attention to follow his lead. Just like their coach the team wasn’t big but if they could overcome injuries and mistakes, they could beat anyone. These would be life lessons.
The 1976 Antigo Red Robins
There would be other tough games as everyone in the Valley was gunning for Antigo. The next week the Robins eked out a 6-0 win over Merrill, #2 in the conference at the time. Merrill’s defense was strong even though Antigo out gained them 193-63 yards. The Blue Jay’s just lacked the offensive punch to beat the Robins. Again, it was a determined drive and a six-yard score with 10:32 left in the game that made the difference. The team overcame mistakes, five fumbles to take the win while Merrill had five of their own fumbles, two lost, and threw three interceptions. Dan Thorpe was back, sometimes playing tailback, as he alternated with Tom Meyer. As a team they had 69 offensive plays with Bradley carrying 27 times but for only 87-yards. The next week they played Rhinelander and won 26-12 but it took two second half scores to break the 12-12 halftime tie.
Week seven brought a tough 6-0 win over Wausau West, a team who the week before lost to Wausau East, 19-0 despite tossing six interceptions and losing three of four fumbles. Antigo had beaten Wausau East in the second game of the season, 34-12 but against West they couldn’t find the endzone but one time they outgained the Warriors a crazy 195 yards to only allowing 32. Things were much better the following week as the Robins costed to a 32-0 win over Shawano. Next up was the conference season finale against Stevens Point.
Just a day before the game vs. SPASH word arrived that former star back for Antigo, Joe Pilecky had died in a car crash. Joe had graduated in 1973 and had played on the 1972 and 1973 mythical championship teams. He attended UW-Stevens Point but his career was cut short due to a knee injury. Each game before the team would go out onto the field Gordy would say a prayer and this time his voice seemed to breakup. It was a sad but inspiring prayer and they went out and won19-8. It was a tough game for SPASH quarterback Tom Lundquist as he tossed two of his season and conference record 20 interceptions. John Payant and Tom Meyer had the picks while Dan Thorpe had a 25-yard touchdown run and added two two-point conversions and a 30-yard field goal. Next up was the playoffs.
As mentioned before, Antigo had dropped to #2 in the polls but they were set to play the #5 ranked team, Milwaukee Madison. Racine Park had jumped to the #1 spot in the polls and they faced #3 South Milwaukee. The game against Madison, played in Oshkosh, was a surprise to Coach Schofield. First, his team scored a season high 36 points in the 36-16 win but they also fumbled 11-times, losing three, two of which were recovered by Madison and turned two into touchdowns. Before 4,000 fans Bill Igl carried 23-times for 108 yards scoring three times while Thorpe gained 58 yards on eight carries with one touchdown plus a two-point conversion. He was two for two passing for 60-yards and two touchdowns. As a team they rolled up a season high 345 total yards and allowed only 103.
The following weekend was the first WIAA Class AA (Later changed to Division 1) Championship game, again played in Oshkosh against #1 Racine Horlick. Both were 10-0. In the previous 10 years Antigo averaged just over 30 points a game and rolled up 300 yards+ per game. With those stats Schofield had been able to substitute freely but this season he wasn’t able to do so, playing the starters all the way. Those players were relied on most of the time and they did the job and did it well. Horlick in 1976 averaged 30+ points and 300+ yards per game going into the title game but Antigo shut them down. Antigo intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble as they gained 194 total yards and held the Rebels to 42 yards rushing and 44 yards passing. Again, the Red Robins won the game of turnovers, intercepting two balls and recovering a fumble. Dave Strobel was the “monster man” in the 52-Monster defense. His job was to key on Horlick’s star back, Zenith Driver who, after gaining over 750 yards and eight touchdowns coming into the title game. Driver only gained 18 yards in 11 carries. Assistant coach Dennis Schmidtke ran the scout team as usual in preparation of the big game and the team was ready. The coaches seemed to be afraid of Driver but they needn’t have worried.
Paul Wirth recovered a Madison fumble and on third and ten Randy Zoern was just able to cross the goal line for the only score of the game. A Robin fumble midway through the fourth quarter gave the Rebels the ball on the Antigo 41-yard line. On fourth and one on the 32, Dean Seis stopped the opposing runner for no gain. Horlick would again have the ball but with 1:41 remaining. Terry Grams would intercept a pass and the defense again came to the rescue. When the game ended fans rushed onto the field to celebrate. The trip home was fun and when the team buses approached the city a parade of emergency vehicles escorted the caravan into town. They proceeded to the school and in the gym Coach Schofield praised his team for their performance. There were a lot of standouts on the team. Dan Thorpe would earn all-conference as quarterback and defensive back, Pat Bradley would be honored at a running back spot on the team, Joe Miller was also named as a defensive back and John Payant was named as a linebacker. Four others received honorable mention on offense and one additional defensive player was named as well. Other key players that were often and mentioned in the newspaper were Dave Strobel, Tom Meyer, Joe Mattek, Mark Kautza, Rolan Buck, Tom Stanke, Pete Solin, Bill Igl, Terry Grams and Dean Seis who had been moved from the offensive end spot to a tackle position. Dan Thorpe was named to the UPI All-State football team on both the offense as a quarterback and on defense as a defensive back and was named by the UPI as the State Player-of-the-Year. He also earned All-State honors as a defensive back on the AP team.
When the 1976 season ended, Antigo had a 25 game winning streak. Antigo was voted as the team to beat again the next year in the Wisconsin Valley Conference. The streak would end though in the 1977 season opener in a 12-6 loss to Stevens Point. The 1977 team would go 6-3 and finish 2nd in the Valley before bouncing back in 1978 to win another state championship. As before, it’s not about the numbers but it’s about the results and how you play the game. For many it was the life lessons on how to play the game of life. You win as a team and you lose as a team even outside the playing field. As Dale Peterson stated, It's what you do with it (your life) that counts". I'm sure Coach Schofield would agree.
I again offer my thanks to some of Coach Schofield's former players for contributing to this and the first part of this story. The 1976 team held a 40th reunion in 2016 and many former players attended. At the reunion Coach said that winning a state title was great but he thought that often, when there were limited teams available to enter the playoffs (1976-1990s) that the chance for a state title diminished the achievements of teams who won their conference. So, even though he won three WIAA titles he was most proud of his Wisconsin Valley Conference title teams.
The Antigo team celebrated a 40 year reunion in 2016. With Coach's passing last year there are still some hopes for a 50th Antigo reunion. Several former 1976 Antigo players and I wholly agree that there should be a special reunion, maybe held in Madison and supported by the WIAA and the WFCA in 2026. Maybe on the Thursday or Friday of the state football championships and those two organizations sponsor, not only gathering of the four state title winners from the first WIAA championships...Antigo, Menomonee Falls, Plymouth and DeSoto...but have a gathering for the runner ups...Racine Horlick, Clintonville, Iowa-Grant and Wild Rose. It would be a great effort to honor those coaches and players who battled for the title. I'll be passing this suggestion on to the WIAA and WFCA in the hopes they can get together on this. Could be a great time for all.