By Greg Bates
Jim Finer was known as a master motivator by his players.
The De Pere High School football coach had some choice words for his team as it entered the 1992 postseason.
The Redbirds, winners of the Bay Conference and sporting a 9-0 record, were rolling all season and one of the favorites to win the program’s first state title.
Before their Division 3 Level 1 playoff game against visiting Southern Door, Finer parked his players in front of the trophy case at school.
“I said, ‘We’ve got a gold basketball. Where’s our gold football?’” Finer recalled. “I said, ‘Are we going to leave this opportunity that we’ve created for ourselves through hard work? Are we going to leave it or are we going to lay it all out?’ I said, ‘There’s no gold ball in there. We need a gold ball in football.’”
That speech motivated the Redbirds players.
Three weeks later, the guys were state champions.
It’s a moment the players won’t ever forget. Two weeks ago at halftime of De Pere’s game against Green Bay Southwest on Sept. 16, the 1992 state title-winning team was honored during a 30-year anniversary ceremony.
Wearing red “De Pere Redbirds 1992 State Champion” hats, nearly 20 players and coaches from that squad gathered to remember the good old days from three decades earlier.
“It was awesome,” Brett Peters, a senior offensive lineman that season, recalled about winning state. “I don’t know, it’s kind of surreal. It was, did that just happen? It was bittersweet, too, because for a lot of us, it was our last game in high school playing with guys that we played with for so long.”
Reminding that historic run
When Finer took over the De Pere program in 1988, it was in shambles.
Winning one game a season was pretty standard back then. De Pere was known as the doormats of the conference just a few years earlier. Finer stepped in, changed that perception and created a winning culture.
In 1989, Finer brought up six freshmen — Peters, Chad Yenchesky, Jeff Trochil, Brian Berres, Eric Dudek and Bill Zeamer — to the program to experience varsity football.
“It kind of got them into the swing of what a varsity football game was about and the toughness that it took,” said Finer, who is now 62 years old. “Then we had these special workouts in the morning, 6 a.m. I did the old Lou Holtz thing that says, ‘If you’re not milking cows, you better be here working out.’ We got a lot of kids here.”
“It was interesting because the teams before the ’92 team really kind of set the foundation for what we were trying to accomplish. When we took it over here, it was three wins I think in four years.”
Finer worked with his players on physicality and mental toughness. Also, grades were an important aspect and Finer made sure his guys were hitting the books. The players had study groups set up.
“Our grade point average was 2.4 I want to say in ’91, and in ’92, it shot up to 3.4,” Finer said. “We had these study tables and we were helping each other — becoming a team. I think it really brought everybody close together, and they started believing.”
The 1991 team had a solid season at 6-3, but back then, only conference champs advanced to the postseason. The Redbirds had to stay home.
“I think that pushed us even harder that next offseason,” said Yenchesky, who started at defensive tackle. “It was really the group of guys, every Thursday night we’d go out to dinner together and we’d take some of the younger guys.”
It was a tight group that invested in a common goal, said Jeff Trochil, who played linebacker.
“I think our refusal to accept defeat, there was no way we were going to let it slip away on us,” Trochil said. “A bunch of guys bought in and we were friends off the field and did a lot of things together — there was a core group of us. Really, coach Finer was the one that kind of bonded us all together. He was just an awesome mentor of young men at that time.”
De Pere had a solid run-oriented offense out of the power-I formation. The Redbirds were led by tailback Matt Daanen, who rushed for 1,512 yards the previous season. Chris Haese and Brock Peters were also weapons out of the backfield.
“There were times when it felt like the entire defense was in the box and we still would try to pound it through them,” said Berres, the team’s quarterback. “We definitely sprinkled in an occasional pass, and more often than not it was pretty darn effective.
“For the most part, we were like, hey, we’re going to put our 11 up there and we’re going to power it right through you and you know what’s coming and see if you can stop us. Thankfully, we won the battles.”
Defensively, it was a seasoned group that included Trochil, Yenchesky and Dudek.
Out of its 13 games that season, the defense tallied six shutouts.
“It was a lot of tough guys, stubborn types of personalities,” Trochil said. “That’s kind of how coach Finer is. He’s a tough, stubborn guy and we all kind of fit that mold and we refused to give anything up. When we did, we were pretty ticked off about it and made the adjustments to get it done.”
The defense really stepped up in the playoffs, allowing just 16 points in four games.
“I think it was just the success we had earlier in the year and everybody playing their role and everybody really continuing to grow throughout the year,” Yenchesky said. “Sometimes you get to a point where you become stagnant, and I think we just continued to get better at our roles and we continued to get stronger and we just continued to get better at doing our responsibilities.”
It seemed to be a team of destiny. That was extremely evident starting from the season opener.
De Pere trailed Seymour by less than a touchdown in the waning moments of the game. De Pere was out of timeouts and Seymour just had to kneel down to run out the clock, but the Thunder opted to run the ball one final time.
The ball flipped up into the air and Dudek caught it; the 6-foot-6 defensive end rumbled down the middle of the field to score with no time on the clock. Final: De Pere 26, Seymour 21.
“When that happened, you could just tell that not only were expectations high going into the season, but it was just a sign like this was going to be something special this year,” said Berres, who also played safety.
Two games later, De Pere earned a victory through more divine intervention.
Ashwaubenon scored late in the game to pull within one point of De Pere. Peters remembers what happened next on the extra point attempt.
“I was in the wrong position and they already called out their blocks and someone tapped me, so I moved around to the other side,” Peters said. “When they snapped the ball, no one blocked me and I just went right in and the ball bounced right off my arm and helmet.”
The blocked kick preserved the victory. Final: De Pere 22, Ashwaubenon 21.
De Pere cruised to the conference championship — winning its final six games by a combined 154-28 — with a 9-0 record and into the playoffs.
Back then, the Bay Conference was one of the elite conferences in the state.
“It was known, if you won the conference, you would probably win the state (title),” Finer said.
In Level 1, Southern Door came to town and was greeted by a massive crowd from De Pere.
Southern Door was up 10-7 halftime, but none of the De Pere players or coaches panicked. The Redbirds were conditioned to be a second-half team.
“Nobody outworked us,” Finer said. “We were doing 600 push-ups and 600 sit-ups in the summer at that
time at once, that was one of our workouts.”
De Pere milked 10 minutes off the clock in the third quarter and scored a touchdown. After Southern Door went three-and-out, the Redbirds got the ball back and scored again. Final: De Pere 21, Southern Door 10.
The win was a confidence builder for De Pere.
In Level 2, De Pere had to travel to Sheboygan South — the best team the Redbirds faced all season, according to Berres.
De Pere registered a safety and then John Coppo booted a 47-yard field goal at the end of the half to put the Redbirds up, 5-0.
At a critical point in the game, De Pere faced a fourth-and-1, and Finer came out to the huddle to give his offense the play call.
“He’s like, ‘Brian, we’re going to roll you out. It’s a pass play, but I want you to run the ball,’” Berres recalled. “True to Coach’s nature, he wants us to pound. I can move a little bit, so I’m like, OK, we’ll roll out and see what happens here. Rolling out and our offensive lineman unfortunately went down and missed his block and I had a guy untouched coming right at me. We had Jeff Danen, one of our wide
receivers, streaking down the sideline and I’m like, I’m not going to be able to run this thing, so I just let it fly. All I remember is I heard a loud cheer and I’m on my butt and I’m thinking, Ah, crap. I threw an interception. That’s not good in a tight game. Nope, sure enough, it was a nice grab by Jeff and he scored a touchdown.”
Final: De Pere 12, Sheboygan South 0.
De Pere cruised in the state semifinals vs. Elkhorn, 28-0.
The Division 3 title game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison was set: De Pere vs. New Richmond, which upset Platteville in the final four.
The day of the game, Nov. 13, Finer saw New Richmond players and coaches in the lobby of the hotel where both teams were staying. He sent a message to a handful of his players — the biggest guys on the team — in their rooms to get their jerseys on and head to the lobby.
“When they came walking in, I just looked at (New Richmond’s) coaches and their players’ eyes and they were like, oh my goodness, are they big,” Finer recalled. “‘Look at that guy, he is big.’ Right then and there, I felt like, OK, I think we can get these guys.”
That intimidation worked.
De Pere led 28-0 at halftime and Finer was able to play his entire roster as the Redbirds cruised, 35-6.
A gold ball was coming home to De Pere.
“Going down to Camp Randall, I remember the whole community was behind us, so many student buses going down,” Yenchesky said. “You run out on Camp Randall (field) and it’s just like when you do it 30 years ago, you think, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’ But I think now that it’s been 30 years, you think about it and you think, ‘Holy crap, no one has done it since we did it.’”
The De Pere players didn’t want to leave the locker room at Camp Randall. They were content to soak up that feeling for as long as they could.
“I just couldn’t believe it was all over,” Trochil said. “It was such an incredible journey to get through there. It just kept getting higher and higher stakes and the intensity kept rising. I think the performance in that game was just the anticipation building up and the work and everything. We weren’t going to be denied at that point just as far as preparation and mindset and just the raw stubbornness of the group of guys towards our common goal.”
That ended up being Finer’s final game at De Pere as he went on to other high school and college coaching gigs.
It also ended up being the final high school game for 12 seniors on that squad. To end it with a win on the biggest stage is something that can’t be taken away — now or ever. It still stands as De Pere’s first and only state football title.
“The big thought that I’ve always shared about that season is that as awesome of a season as it was, I wouldn’t want to go back in time and experience it again just because it went so perfect that I wouldn’t want to screw it up,” Trochil said.
By Greg Bates