One of the toughest feats in sports is defending a title. Professional, college or high school, team sport or individual — winning a championship two years in a row is tough to do.
Player and coaching turnover, while surely important, is only one of the variables that go into a title defense. Injuries, cohesiveness and straight-up luck can be just as influential. It’s why seeing a repeat champion in any sport across the different levels of competition is pretty rare.
Unless a team or individual is heads and tails above the competition, there’s simply too many aspects that can affect success from one year to the next.
Of course, there are exceptions to that general rule. Since 2000, the WIAA has had its share of repeat state champs in football. In the past 15 years, there have been 13 programs across the seven divisions that have won two or more state titles in a row — including an astounding six in a row from Stratford between 2003 and 2008. Lancaster (2000-02, 2005-06) and Kimberly (2007-08, 2013-14) both have won two or more in a row on two different occasions and Waunakee won three in a row between 2009 and 2011.
This year, St. Mary’s Springs will look to join the exclusive list of programs that, since private schools joined the WIAA at the turn of the century, have either won consecutive state titles on multiple occasions or have won three or more in a row.
The Ledgers won consecutive state championships in 2011 and 2012, defeating Shiocton and Eau Claire Regis, respectively, and are the defending Division 6 state champs after holding off Darlington 37-28 in the title game last November.
With five state titles in total since 2000, St. Mary’s Springs and legendary coach Bob Hyland are more than familiar with being the program everyone aims to take down. Perhaps part of the reason why the Ledgers have been and continue to be so dominant within the Flyway Conference and at the state level is because they simply don’t view it as anything special. The preparation stays the same every year, whether or not they returned to Fond du Lac with a gold ball the season before.
“We don’t prepare any different,” Hyland said. “We prepare the same way for any season. Let’s get the basics in, let’s get it down and hopefully nothing happens and we can win some early games and improve from there. We don’t talk about down the road.”
While the Ledgers may not prepare any differently when they’re the defending state champs, make no mistake — they still have the goal of getting back to Madison. One game at a time is always the motto, but they are not shy about their expectations during any given season.
“I think that’s the goal. The goal is every year, to win conference and if you do that, you get in the playoffs,” Hyland said. “Once you’re in the playoffs, it’s to make it to Madison. That’s our goal. Since 2000, and that’s 15 seasons, we’ve been in the playoffs 13 times and only once have we been beaten by a non-state champion. In 2013, we got beat by Darlington and Darlington got beat by Shiocton in the state championship. That was the only time. We’ve either won it or most times we’ve been runner-up and so on.
“I’m proud of our record, I’m proud of the way our kids concentrate year in and year out to come out here and do the best they can and to say ‘We’re going to do this’ and that’s their goal. … Make it to state and let the chips fall.”
Although St. Mary’s Springs does lose a good portion of last year’s defense, one that allowed only 95 points in 14 games, it brings back many of its key contributors on offense, including quarterback Blake Bauer and running back Sam Spranger. As the defending champs and with a roster that looks capable of competing for another gold ball, St. Mary’s Springs will get every opponent’s best shot in 2015 — beginning with Shiocton on Aug. 20.
Again, nothing new for Hyland or the Ledgers. That’s something he relishes and it’s arguably part of the reason why Springs has stayed at or near the top for so long.
“I love it. I like people shooting at us like that and everybody gives us their best,” Hyland said. “If you can continue to succeed with that target, you’re going to be good. I guess I never pay attention it because in the last 44 years, we’ve been in the state championship game 22 times, so half the time. The kids expect it. I expect it. I expect us to be good. I don’t know how good. Our offense can be pretty darn good this year. Our defense, we don’t have much back. They’ve got to prove something. We’ll find those kids who can do it. We’ll find out how good they are.”
Sam Oleson: (920) 907-7930, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @sam_olesonFDL