Washington put a stamp on its football dynasty and an exclamation point on the legacy of its future hall of fame coach, Brian Hermanson, when the Warriors won their third title in four years in 2012.
But it’s possible that the team’s string of six straight DakotaDome appearances was too much of a good thing.
After a certain point, you become a victim to unrealistic expectations.
Hermanson stepped down in Feb. 2013, and Chad Stadem, who coached Flandreau and Howard to state titles, became his replacement. But the team Stadem inherited was different than the one which last took the field for Hermanson, save for a mostly held-over coaching staff.
Stadem’s team was comparably bereft of talent. Gone were the likes of Nate Gerry and Matt Hermanson, and a few years had passed since Farniok brothers Derek and Tom anchored the offensive line. In their place was a hardworking group with lots of young potential, but little in the way of established starters.
The team’s quarterback in Stadem’s first year was Jack Schelhaas, a wiry 6-foot-1, 175-pound sophomore who flashed the ability to make plays with his legs, especially when plays broke down. Another sophomore, Matt Farniok, settled into the tackle spot Derek once dominated.
Offensively, the Warriors were one-dimensional. The team struggled to find the end zone and fizzled to a 3-6 record.
A segment of Warrior Nation devotees wanted heads to roll. The live chat with Argus Leader sports reporters during Washington games became a place for anonymous authors to spew vitriol, much of it directed at the new coach.
“My first year was pretty rough,” Stadem said. “With the coaching change that happened, it’s a different culture and that’s the thing. There was a change to how I coach and it just takes time to get used to.”
In year two, Stadem re-tooled his coaching staff and implemented new offensive and defensive systems. Schelhaas took a step forward as a passer, Farniok built a case as the state’s top football prospect, and the Warriors held leads in seven of nine games.
“Midway into the year we started seeing promise,” Stadem said, pointing to three wins in the final five regular-season games.
But Washington couldn’t put teams away and the end result was another 3-6 season. The signs of marked improvement were there, but you had to know where to look.
Learning from the lumps
Washington wasn’t suddenly in games without reason, and a rich group of to-be seniors seemed poised for big years.
At offseason camps, Washington performed well against other teams in un-padded scrimmages. Schelhaas looked like a different player throwing the ball. Big plays seemed to be on the horizon.
“This is the second year in my offense and defense and the kids have really grown into it,” Stadem said. “Before we just couldn’t finish teams off. The focus this year was to get a lead and learn how to win.”
Learn and teach are words Stadem uses frequently in post-game interviews. Those concepts underpin Stadem’s approach.
“That’s what I’m about. I don’t want to be known as a football coach, I want to be known as an educator,” Stadem said.
Just like in the classroom, that means depending more on substance than flash. Stadem doesn’t often raise his voice. He takes pride in the fact that his players aren’t afraid to screw up because they know the result won’t be punitive.
“He’s not going to be spitting in your face and getting on you hard. He wants to let you play and see what you can do, and from there evaluate and maybe change your approach,” Schelhaas said. “It’s that constructive criticism that our guys are responding well to. He’s a teacher. He’s a coach, but really he’s a teacher.”
The talent was building. The classroom work and the weight room provided steady gains. Back-to-back losing seasons forged a brotherhood among those taking the hard road.
“Myself, Matt, the coaching staff — especially Coach Stadem — we took our lumps,” Schelhaas said. “We just had to keep trudging through it and try to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It was all about working hard and staying the course.”
Return of the ‘Warrior Way’
When the Warriors took to the field this season, they looked more like the units that paid yearly visits to Vermillion in mid-November, not the losing teams of 2013 and ’14.
From the outset, Washington’s offensive line opened huge rushing lanes and smothered the opposition.
Sophomore Will Farniok, like Matt did with Derek, took over his older brother’s old position (center) and flourished. Jaren Fountain, Bridger Irons and three-year starter Stephen Cordell rounded out a dominating group up front.
The group is an intimidating bunch and, at least physically, so is its coaching staff. Offensive line coach Shawn Flanagan started as a freshman for Oregon and, Stadem says, “provides that instant credibility” with players.
Tom Farniok has also made time as an assistant after his professional stint with the Minnesota Vikings. Once one of the angry voices on social media that demanded a better product from Stadem’s Warriors, Tom has found a valuable place this season on the staff.
“Coach Flanagan is a football mind and he really knows his stuff, and I think the benefit of having Tom is he can really hone in on technique with the guys and make sure they’re doing exactly what they need to,” Schelhaas said. “It’s been a great combination of Flanagan’s wisdom and how well Tom can relate to the guys and teach them techniques.”
This season Washington racked up 239 rushing yards per game and averaged 5.2 yards a carry. The Warriors’ ability to wear on teams late was unrivaled in ‘11AAA’.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Matt Farniok said. “Not too many people can say that their older brother is helping coach their team and they’re in the state championship while playing next to their little brother.”
There’s more to Washington than its line and rushing attack — the Warriors aren’t a one-trick pony on offense.
Schelhaas had his finest statistical season by a mile, completing over 60 percent of his passes for 1,124 yards, 17 touchdowns and only six interceptions. On the ground, he added another 586 yards and six scores, while Chayden Fitzsimmons locked down the top running back spot and went for 808 yards and 10 touchdowns. Ty Smith emerged as a bonafide deep threat, and the remaining receiving corps flashed big play ability.
Defensively, the Warriors were a steadfast bunch with playmakers at every level. Seven times in 11 games to the Dome, the Warriors held opponents to seven points or less.
“I knew when I first got here what I had to do,” Stadem said. “I’ve been through this before. Yeah, it was difficult. Those were tough years. But I feel like we’re building something. We’re building a foundation and I think it’s showing now.”
The sense of satisfaction maybe wouldn’t feel as good without the struggles.
“These guys have had to go through some of the tough parts,” Stadem said. “But the best part about it is they’ve seen the tough times and so they appreciate the good times. It’s driven them.”
Schelhaas didn’t mince words about Saturday’s game. “We’re not driving down to Vermillion just to play in the Dome,” he said, “we’re going to win.”