LENA — When Catholic Central High School of Marinette and Lena High School merged football programs in 2003, the fan base was a bit divided, said Dale Lange, co-head coach of the Lena/St. Thomas Aquinas Titans.
“The first year, a kid from Central would score and half the crowd would cheer,” he explained. “A kid from Lena would score and half the crowd would cheer. The players got along. I think it took longer for the parents. The players knew that it was a good situation. We just refer to it as Titans football rather than one school or the other. We have kids who enjoy playing the game together.”
Both schools were struggling for numbers in football and Catholic Central, which became St. Thomas Aquinas Academy in 2004, had competed in the M & O Conference in all sports except football, so a co-op made sense. The joint effort has proven to be successful beyond competing on the gridiron, said Lange.
“It’s not just about winning games,” he said. “It’s about life lessons for the kids, winning down the road. The neatest thing is the experience to meet kids from another community. They find out that kids are kids at both schools.”
“When I was a freshman, I didn’t know anybody,” said senior Bernie Beyer of Lena who plays offensive line, defensive line and tight end. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of people. I have fun with the guys I play with on this team. I just love playing football. Both are small schools and everyone gets along.”
Games and practices alternate between the two schools. Busing is provided for the players. The current roster features 12 players from St. Thomas Aquinas and 14 players from Lena.
“This is the lowest (number of players) we’ve been in several years,” said Lange, who teams with Eddie Huberty as co-head coaches. “We’ve got a couple guys who are hurt. We have been averaging around 32 to 34 players per year. Six more players is a substantial increase.”
The Titans play both a varsity and junior varsity schedule. The co-op prevents underclassmen from being pushed up to the varsity before they are ready.
“There are very few freshmen and sophomores that have the size to play varsity football,” said Lange.
The team is winless so far this season, but the outlook remains positive. Lange points to a 17-play opening drive versus Suring in week three as a sign of the team’s capabilities. The Titans run a single wing offense. Defensively, they employ a 3-5 patterned after the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where Huberty’s son Craig is currently a linebacker and older son Rob, a former linebacker, earned All-American honors.
Moving forward, the two schools remain committed to teaming together. The combined enrollment (less than 150 students) is still smaller than the majority of the schools in the conference. Other programs, outside the M & O, have inquired about forming a tri-op with St. Thomas Aquinas and Lena.
Eight-man football was added by the WIAA in 2012 and is an option if the number of players in the program were to drop. The Titans have played eight-man games at the junior varsity level due to opposing teams having small rosters.
“When you first think of eight-man football, a lot of people snub their noses and don’t think it’s real football,” said Lange. “It’s good football. It’s a little faster-pace game. The field is a little smaller, but there is still blocking, passing, tackling; everything you see in 11-man ball you see in eight-man ball.”
The football program is not the only athletic co-op for the two schools. The cross country, wrestling, baseball, softball and track and field squads are also joint efforts.
Senior Alex Votava of St. Thomas Aquinas, a receiver on the football team, also plays basketball and baseball. Some of his football teammates from Lena become opponents during the hoops season.
“It’s fun to play against them because we all know each other,” he said. “We get to come back and co-op for baseball and see some of the kids who play football again.”
Last basketball season, Lena was short junior varsity players due to injuries. A couple of players from St. Thomas Aquinas played for Lena so they could have a game. This never would have happened without the co-op relationships in other sports, said Lange.
Despite the tough start, making the playoffs remains the goal, said Beyer. He recognizes that lessons from football will serve him after high school.
“You have to work hard at whatever you are doing and always keep your head up,” he said.
“Keep pushing and never give up,” said Votava. “Even if you are getting beat, keep playing hard.”
“They would never have this experience (without the co-op),” said Lange. “If you took the two schools independently, how would you put a football program together? St. Thomas Aquinas could not. Lena would be playing varsity only, JV only or eight-man. We’ve overcome the uncertainty and fear of the unknown from when we started. We’ve got a good corps of kids.”