Things had gone downhill for both Messmer and Shorewood in the 1970’s and 80’s and it carried forward. Messmer was a fixture on the Milwaukee northside as the city was seeing many changes. White flight to the suburbs was going on, the African American population was moving into the area to replace those who left. The strong German, Polish and Italian Catholic base was moving out. The first African Americans admitted to Messmer were in the early 1950’s and they were generally also Catholic. But as time went on that changed and after 1984 most students at the school were not Catholic. Those who attended from then on were from families who saw the value of an education that had better structure and discipline than the public schools in the area could provide. That didn’t necessarily connotate to bringing in great athletes to the school. Messmer produced some very good teams in sports other than football, but it was rough going. The school had as many as 1,150+ students in the 1950’s and the attendance continued into the 1960’s. But for most years there were 100-150 more females than males. The best record for the school’s football team after 1947 was 1963 when they posted an 8-2-0 record and finished in third place in the conference. A significant loss was the death of coach Michael Barrington who died in an auto accident in 1984.
Basketball and track became the major sports for the Bishops. In 1982 the basketball team went 25-4 and in 1987 they actually won a WISSA title. However, school attendance was declining in the Catholic schools and at Messmer in particular and the archdiocese decided to close the school along with several others in 1984. There were 974 students at Messmer in 1970 but by 1980 there were 650 and by 1983 there were 311 when the decision to close came along. A “Save Messmer Committee” was created, and the school was sold to Messmer High School, Inc. which ran the school after buying the building and contents for $375,000. When the school reopened in the fall of 1984 there were only 135 students and 14 teachers. Between 1984 and 1999 the school was not affiliated with the archdiocese but maintained its Catholic teachings as a private, independent Catholic school. The new focus for this new Catholic school wasn’t necessarily mainly religious as it had been in the past, although scripture was still part of the school courses.
The school had more of a community focus to help those in need, to serve their current attendee’s needs and as a result the school got stronger with an increase in attendance. The focus of what the school was attempting to do, inside the school and outside through outreach programs, was on social justice Yes, parents now had to pay more than in the past when it was affiliated with the archdiocese but the school still offered most of the same curriculum that it had when they had 1,000 students by keying in on more individual student needs and providing strong classes in science, math, and the humanities. Because of its standing in the community, when school choice arrived to help pay for private education, many parents jumped at the chance to have their child in a good, solid private school. In 1999 the school achieved renewed archdiocese accreditation and the football program that had been cancelled in 1984 was revived in 2001.
Meanwhile, less than two miles away, Sherwood football was having its own problems. After 1988, when the school posted a 3-6 record, the school had a miserable posting of 4-104. YES, four wins between 1989 and 1999, including the 63-game losing streak that was mentioned in PART II of this series. They also had a 32-game losing streak as well among the 104 losses in that timeframe. To say that the football program was on a downward spiral is to put it mildly. THEN, the private schools were admitted into the WIAA after the WISSA dissolved in the 1999-2000 school year. Both schools were at a crossroads. Shorewood had 750 students of which 75% were white. Messmer had 525 students of which 80% were from minority backgrounds.
Shorewood had a football stadium with an active, al be it, very struggling football program. Messmer had no team and few of the males at the school had played much more than pick0up games. To those people in Shorewood, Messmer was “that” school by the expressway (I-43). To the students at Messmer, Shorewood was “that” school across the river (The Milwaukee River). To many they were a million miles apart, not two.
Now, I’ve not done a lot of digging into Catholic schools that co-opted with other Catholic schools. I’m sure, as Francis Jordan, Notre Dame, Pio Nono, and a few other Milwaukee Catholic area schools were beginning to close there may have been something like this happening. And while it wasn’t super common for public schools to co-opt id did happen…Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau (GET), Cambria-Friesland and Wittenberg-Birnamwood…to name a few. It has become more common among the schools that have 8-player football. But the merging of Shorewood and Messmer to play football was the first for having a private school and a public school join together.
2001 the team known as Shorewood/Messmer, with over 1,200 students, posted a lackluster 0-9 record, scoring few points while giving up many. Their first coach was Jim Trost who stayed for the one season before moving on to be the head coach at Horicon/Hustisford where he had some good success. It was in this timeframe where fans would cheer “GO Shorewood” or “Go Messmer” that someone chanted “Go Messwood” and the chant was born. To get a good feel for that first season together, read Greg J. Borkowski’s story from the November 25, 2001 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel posted by the Marquette University Education Department… First and Long: Shorewood-Messmer endures rough inaugural season - Children in Urban America (marquette.edu)
The next season brought a former coach out of retirement to teak the reigns. That new coach was Hall of Fame Coach Ron Davies who had directed Kenosha Tremper to two consecutive WIAA state titles in 1979 and 1980. He had a strong resume for success. Davies had retired in 1993 after 18-seasons at Tremper. He would coach Messwood from 2002-08. Things started off slow, going 2-7 in 2002 and 0-9 in 2003 but the first signs of a revival came in 2004 when the team went 5-4. In the first six seasons under Davies the schools played in the Woodland West Conference division. In his final season the team would go 6-3 playing an independent schedule, they played four Milwaukee City Conference schools and five others from around the eastern part of the state, from Kenosha St. Joseph to Sevastopol. Only one of their three losses was a blowout otherwise they might have gone 8-1. The next two seasons were disasters, 0-9 in 2009 and 1-8 in 2010. In 2010 the school was placed in the Midwest Classic Conference by the WIAA conference realignment and there would be a revival for several years thereafter.
Under Drake Zortman, a former assistant at Homestead, Whitefish Bay and Nicolet, the team went 4-5, 7-2 and 7-3 from 2011-13. They won their first conference title in 2013. After Zortman left the program there were several other coaches including Tony Davis who took the 2018 team to the top of the Woodland East Conference, finishing with a 7-3 record and making the first round of the WIAA playoffs. They lost to Racine Horlick, but they have shown pride in what they have been able to overcome. In 2019 a documentary about the program was filmed and it is good viewing if you have a chance…'Messwood,' on Messmer-Shorewood football team, to debut at DOC NYC (jsonline.com)
While the teams haven’t won any state title’s and few conference trophy’s their story is one of people coming together. In a 2012 Journal Sentinel story about Messwood, former coach Ron Davies said that football teaches kids a lifetime of values about accountability. They have to take pride in what they do and not just show up. I think the kids playing for Messwood today are not just showing up
Finally: I’m not sure why a coopt team with Whitefish Bay Dominican (3-miles north east of Messmer), Glendale Nicolet (5.2-miles north of Messmer), Milwaukee Rufus King (.8-miles west of Messmer) or Whitefish Bay H.S, (3.1- miles north east of Messmer) never seems to have been proposed For that matter, what about a Shorewood coopt team with Whitefish Bay H.S (1.8-miles north of Shorewood) or Milwaukee Riverside (1.4 miles south of Shorewood) also never seemed to be proposed. I’m noy saying any of these other choices would have been better. I’m just curious. These are all schools both Messmer and Shorewood have played against in other sports at other times so it’s not that they are unfamiliar with each other and I’m not advocating it now. Just food for thought.