KIMBERLY, Wis. – The nondescript classroom is on the bottom level at Kimberly High School and is full of mementos and team pictures of the program’s five state football champions.
There’s a circular desk layout for students, inspirational quotes from sports icons and also one peculiar piece of art drawn on the whiteboard by the one of the state’s most successful football coaches.
“I hope that’s not ending up on your (Snapchat),” Steve Jones jokes.
But only to show the lighter side of Jones, the focused and determined leader of the Papermakers who guided his team to its 49th consecutive victory on Friday, a 45-14 dismantling of Appleton West on Roberts Field at the Banta Bowl.
The 49 consecutive victories mark the nation’s longest active winning streak after Valle Catholic lost 50-13 to Lamar (Mo.) on Saturday. Valle had a 51-game winning streak and had not lost since the Class 1 state title game in 2012.
Lamar is the five-time defending Class 2 state champions.
Jones, in his sixth season coaching the Papermakers, has compiled a 67-4 record including three consecutive state championships and the nation’s longest active winning streak at 49 games. The Papermakers are the top-ranked team in the latest Associated Press poll and also ranked in the top 10 in several national polls.
No large division school in Wisconsin has been more dominant than Kimberly over the past 10 years. The Papermakers have a 117-8 record in that span and have won five state championships (2007, 2008, 2013, 2014, 2015), with a runner-up finish in 2009.
And Kimberly has all the ingredients necessary to push for a fourth consecutive crown this season, boasting Wisconsin recruits Danny Vanden Boom at quarterback and Logan Bruss at offensive tackle. Running back D.J. Stewart looks to follow a long line of superb Papermakers running backs, with the defense anchored by North Dakota State recruit Logan McCormick.
The practices appear typical of the sport to the untrained eye. They are well-organized and regimented. Discipline is paramount.
Look deeper and you start to notice differences from other programs: the harmonious relationship between the coaches and players. The level of respect given between the players from different classes. Hard work is requested and almost always received. Encouragement is plentiful. Younger players are revered, not looked down upon.
Some of the stereotypical negative traits you see crop up within a typical football team — brashness, narcissism and jealousy — are almost non-existent within the family-type atmosphere at Kimberly.
Indeed, when asked to describe some of the pillars that make up his team, one word rose to the front of Jones’ mind.
“Our program is built on love and not built on fear,” he said. “I think some programs are run on and based on fear. ‘I’m fearful of the head coach and fearful of the position coach and I don’t want to have to run and do up-downs.’
“I’m not saying we don’t do those things in our program, but I really believe that our foundation of our program is built on love. And we talk about what’s the difference when our kids hit the field. We talk about that it’s not about hating the person in front of you or hating your opponent. It’s about loving the person next to you or behind you. And playing so hard because you love those people so much and you don’t want to let them down.
“I know that doesn’t sound very aggressive or manly for a football team, but I tell our players that I love them and I get it back sometimes, which is kind of cool.”
Seeds of success
The start of Kimberly’s decade of dominance began a few years prior to its decade-long run.
Steve Jorgensen was hired in the 2004 to take over a Kimberly program that had struggled to compete in the Fox Valley Association and had finished a combined 2-16 during the 2002 and 2003 seasons.
Jorgensen, who had won a state title at Oshkosh North in 2000 and is now an assistant at Fond du Lac, brought instant credibility to the program. He also brought along strength and conditioning coach Dean Matsche from the Spartans coaching staff and began installing the seeds of success through sweat equity.
Jamison Wells, a receiver/defensive back/returner from 2005 to 2008, remembers the importance the new staff put on weight training and conditioning.
“It was a huge difference from what they were doing before and what they were doing at the time,” Wells said. “It was kind of a shellshock for a lot of the kids that were there. It was like, ‘Holy cow, this is pretty difficult.’
“But (Jorgensen) totally changed the way we did the whole strength and conditioning and that’s pretty much what sets that program up for success.”
That weight training is similar to what Wells experienced during his playing career at Division I Northern Illinois.
“That was actually kind of what my biggest thank yous to them were, that there really was no difference between the program that we were doing at Kimberly my senior year and NIU when I got there that summer,” Wells said. “The conditioning and lifting was the same. The only thing that was different was the amount of weight being used. But to be honest, (Kimberly) has a very Division I (college) type lifting program. That’s the best way to put it.”
It took a few seasons for the weight training to pay off, as Kimberly won nine games combined over the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
The 2006 season proved to be the turning point in the Papermakers program as Kimberly finished 9-1 overall, winning the FVA title.
The next season saw the beginning of the decade of dominance with Kimberly putting together a 14-0 record and securing its first state title. Kimberly defeated DeForest 20-7 to win the WIAA Division 2 state crown.
The Papermakers were even more impressive in 2008. Led on offense by Wells, the Associated Press player of the year, and on defense by current Carolina Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein, the Papermakers defended their D2 state title by finishing 14-0 with a 28-14 victory over Verona in the championship.
“We won it for two years and I think people weren’t too sure. Was it a good class type of thing or was it the program?” Wells said. “Well, the truth was it was the program. It wasn’t just a couple of good classes that ran through Kimberly. The entire program is stellar.
“It goes back to the strength and conditioning. Now there’s winter and morning conditioning and speed acceleration. Not every high school is doing that. People want to win state titles, but not many kids are waking up at 6 in the morning in the dead of winter working out for football.”
Kimberly finished 12-2 in 2009 and lost to Waunakee in the D2 state title game, thwarting a chance at a three-peat. The next season, a 10-2 mark and tough loss to Cedarburg in the D2 state quarterfinals, would be Jorgensen’s final as Kimberly’s head coach.
The program, however, would be in prime position to continue that success and momentum under a first-time head coach well-versed in leadership principles.
On bamboos and icebergs
Jones is tall, fit and carries himself with friendly confidence while walking through the halls of Kimberly High School. He greets students warmly and banters with co-workers with high enthusiasm.
The Stevens Point native and UW-Stevens Point graduate was the offensive coordinator under Jorgensen for five seasons and when the opportunity arose for the then 31-year-old Jones to take the next step, he decided to press forward in his coaching career and take the position.
Not that there weren’t reservations at first. Jones was a little apprehensive about filling the shoes of the well-known Jorgensen.
“He’s a great coach and he’s done a lot for the Kimberly School District and for Kimberly football,” Jones told the Post-Crescent in an article on Jan. 25, 2011. “As far as expectations go, I am looking forward to them. High expectations bring excellence. Sometimes if you don’t have high expectations, you don’t always reach your potential.”
Part of Jones’ philosophy is patience and one pillar of his program is the “Water It” mantra. That involves the tale of the farmer trying to grow bamboo, and Kimberly players carry bamboo sticks before every game to remind the team of that philosophy.
“That stems from a story of a bamboo farmer. He goes out and plants a bamboo seed in the dirt and for 365 days he goes out and waters that piece of dirt with that seed underneath it and he sees no growth at all,” Jones said. “Then the next year he goes out, same thing: 365 days and people are calling him crazy and ‘why are you wasting your time?’ and ‘there’s nothing there.’
“By the third year, another 365 days rolls around. Still nothing. Fourth year rolls around, that seed will grow and it will shoot up 90 feet in 60 days. So all the growth is happening underneath the soil and people don’t see that. And I think that in today’s instant gratification society, where we want results right now and if we don’t get them right now, we’re going to give up, that story and that philosophy can really resonate with kids. If you’re patient and persistent with your goals and you don’t give up, eventually you’re going to see growth.”