Two different coaches had the same level of expectations for their programs this season. Their teams had the same result.
Caledonia High School football coach Carl Fruechte and Bangor coach Rick Muellenberg each knew their team had high promises entering the 2017 season, and both coaches helped lead their teams to state championships.
“I think it’s great to have high expectations,” Fruechte said. “We knew our young men could handle them.”
Fruechte and Muellenberg are the La Crosse Tribune Co-Coaches of the Year. Muellenberg is sharing the award for the third time with a Caledonia coach.
The Warriors won 41 consecutive games and won their third straight state title in Minnesota Class AA, while the Cardinals won their second title in three years on the Wisconsin side.
Both teams were ranked highly throughout the season. Bangor lost in the state semifinals last season with a number of the same players returning.
With high expectations comes an added measure of pressure, but both programs handled it well. Both coaches also said that the 2017 teams were as mentally strong as teams Fruechte and Muellenberg coached in the past.
“We think they handled it really well,” Fruechte said. “I didn’t think I even knew what our streak was until (the Tribune) said something to me. It’s just not something we talked about. I know that’s hard for people to believe, but that’s the truth. We never got caught up in it. That speaks highly of the maturing process, especially in today’s social media.”
Social media has become a livelihood, but the Warriors stayed away from all the conversations. They weren’t interested in jumping into the trash talk when it could have been easy to respond to both the protagonists and naysayers.
“I don’t like talkers,” Fruechte said. “You have to educate how to h
ave your kids handle bulletin board material stuff. Things like Hudl (a video-sharing site) is great. We can get rid of the other stuff.”
Fruechte realized, however, that people in Caledonia were excited to talk about their prized football team.
“We tried to let our team know that people mean well,” Fruechte said. “We want people thinking about high school kids, because they’re a part of our community.
“Don’t get me wrong, the NFL is fun, college football is fun, but those players are not necessarily a part of the community and they’re not in our lives,” Fruechte said.
The turning point for the Warriors was the playoff game against Triton on Nov. 3. Caledonia won that game 35-7, but Triton led 7-6 in the third quarter.
“In that game, to be frank, we weren’t listening very well to what we talked about,” Fruechte said. “It wasn’t being disrespectful, I don’t think it was getting hammered in. Triton did a nice job of getting after us. We had a nice talk at halftime and the light bulb just went off.
“It definitely got us on the right track,” Fruechte said. “That’s what good competition does.”
The Cardinals, meanwhile, defeated Black Hawk 37-14 in the Nov. 17 Division 7 title game at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Cardinals lost to Edgar in the 2016 state semifinals, and right after that loss, Bangor’s then-juniors were ready to prepare for the next season.
But, the Cardinals had to face Edgar again, but this year, it was in the quarterfinals of the WIAA playoffs.
The Cardinals doubled up the Wildcats 16-8 on a snowy November night in a game where the two teams probably should have met for the state title.
Bangor senior Theo Muellenberg scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 1-yard run early in the third quarter to help top the Wildcats. Understandably so, many pegged the Cardinals to win the state title after eliminating the Wildcats.
Coach Mullenberg’s job was to maintain that same type of focus even though Edgar was gone.
The Cardinals ran into Abbotsford in the state semifinal, and Bangor won that contest 30-7. They scored 22 third-quarter points en route to the win.
The week leading up to the Abbotsford game wasn’t a cake walk for the Cardinals. Rick Muellenberg admitted his team didn’t practice well until Wednesday of that week.
The game against Edgar was very physical, but since it was playoff time, the players didn’t need extra motivation.
“I was a little worried mentally and physically,” Rick Muellenberg said. “They felt sore and slow on Tuesday, and we cut practice down on that day because of it.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself (to give Theo and the seniors another title),” Rick Mullenberg said. “I’ve followed this class since they were in kindergarten. I did put a little more pressure on myself inwardly just to make sure not necessarily a state championship, but every year, I don’t want to let the kids down.”
The seniors set high expectations — like returning to the state championship — for themselves, too.
“I knew that was their goal, so I didn’t have to talk about it,” Rick Muellenberg said. “If you look too far down the road, bad things can happen in the short term. I think knowing that they had that goal, keeping them focused was my job.”