‘I was heartbroken’
Community rallies around Amherst senior
By Greg Seubert
After losing its first two games of the season – one in overtime to Clintonville and the other at home to Medford – the Amherst football team went back to the drawing board.
The Falcons responded by winning their next six Central Wisconsin Conference-Large games and qualified for the upcoming WIAA playoffs.
An anonymous tip regarding the athletic eligibility of one of the team’s players changed everything, however.
The WIAA, which oversees Wisconsin’s high school athletic programs, received the tip shortly after Amherst defeated Manawa 49-0 Oct. 7. The tip alleged that an Amherst player had also played on Manawa’s freshman/junior varsity football team in 2018. Student-athletes are allowed no more than four consecutive years of athletic eligibility, which means the player would have used up his eligibility with the end of the 2021-11 school year.
The WIAA Board of Control voted 9-0 Oct. 13 to uphold its earlier decision that Amherst would have to forfeit its eight games and therefore would not be eligible for the playoffs. Four days later, a Portage County Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the WIAA and did not issue a temporary restraining order filed against the organization.
After investigating the tip, WIAA officials contacted Amherst High School athletic director Shawn Groshek, who contacted the student – senior Sam Wangelin – Oct. 10 and met with him at school the following day.
“I got home from a JV football game and my mom said something like, ‘Hey, the AD called and said something about Manawa,’” Wangelin said. “I was like, ‘Manawa? That’s weird.’ The next morning, I went and talked to him and he gave me the scoop.
“He said somebody was coming after my eligibility,” he said. “He brought up the case with Edgewood last year. They had an ineligible player and they had to forfeit all their games. That’s kind of where my mind went right away.”
Edgewood High School, in Madison, forfeited nine regular-season and two playoff wins in 2021 after the WIAA determined that its football team included an ineligible player.
Two days after Wangelin and Groshek met, Wangelin broke the news to his teammates before practice.
“I was heartbroken,” he said. “To face my teammates and tell them that all the work we put in was basically for nothing, it was heartbreaking. If I had known about this, I wouldn’t have played and put this in jeopardy for those guys.”
Wangelin, Tomorrow River School District officials and about a dozen Amherst senior football players attended the court hearing Oct. 17 in Stevens Point in an attempt to reverse the WIAA’s decision regarding the forfeits.
The hearing came three days after the Falcons defeated Stratford 28-21 in a game that would have decided the CWC-Large champion.
“The waiting was the worst part,” Wangelin said. “When the judge was making his decision, it felt like it went on forever. It was about an hour, but it felt a lot longer just sitting there. I went into that hearing thinking it’s honestly up in the air at this point. It was an emotional roller coaster in that courtroom. We got the news that we were going to take the decision to court and there was a chance that we could get (the wins) back. Even if the Stratford game meant nothing at the time, it could mean something. I think it did mean something for all of us. Even though I wasn’t playing, I wasn’t the reason we were winning all those games.”
Wangelin confirmed that he played on Manawa’s freshman/junior varsity team as a home-schooled eighth-grader in 2018 while living in the Manawa School District.
“I was in eighth grade and old enough to play high school football,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m a home-schooled kid, I’ve always loved football, I’ll go play football.’ I never attended any classes in Manawa. I would show up at 3:15 to play football.”
Wangelin and his younger sister enrolled at Stevens Point Christian Academy in 2019.
“My cousins went to that school and my uncle had talked to my mother,” he said. “She was unable to home-school us any further. Toward the end of the school year, it was too much to drive to Point every day.”
Wangelin’s family lives near Waupaca in the Waupaca School District and he decided to open-enroll at Amherst High School as a sophomore in 2020.
“My best friend at the time was going to Amherst,” he said. “He said, ‘Hey, come to school with me.’ It was only a 10-minute commute. Coming to Amherst is probably the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Wangelin didn’t play football as a sophomore in Amherst, but played soccer instead.
“I wasn’t even thinking about playing football,” he said. “I was like, ‘I know they have a good football team, but I’m just going to play soccer because I know I’m good at soccer. I know how good the football team is and I probably won’t play.’ When I was at Manawa, I had a coach that discouraged me from playing, so that was in my head.”
Wangelin knew all about Amherst’s football success – Division 5 state championships in 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017 – and went out for the team last year as a junior.
“I grew up playing football,” he said. “I played flag football in Waupaca. Playing baseball definitely helped. I don’t think any of them knew that I had played football before, so they were surprised that I was kind of good at it.”
Wangelin’s highlight this season was kicking a 24-yard field goal as time expired that gave the Falcons a 31-28 win over Wittenberg-Birnamwood, a team that knocked the Falcons out of the playoffs last year.
It was his only field goal of the season.
“I’d say my role was outside linebacker and kicking,” he said. “I think I only had three or four catches for 30-something yards and one rushing attempt. I was willing to do anything to help the team win. After that game, I was talking to my friends saying that was a night we’ll remember forever. Getting texts and stuff that whole weekend was pretty amazing.”
Instead of hosting a Level 1 playoff game Oct. 21, the Falcons played a intersquad scrimmage at the school in front of the team’s families, friends and fans.
Wangelin played, but ended up dislocating his shoulder.
“It was definitely amazing to put on the pads and do all that with my buddies one more time,” he said. “I think the whole community was upset by the decision. I haven’t felt any backlash. I kind of put it on me at first, but everyone’s been so supportive and is behind all of us. I don’t think the community is outraged that we didn’t make the playoffs. We did and we earned that. Like our coach said after the game against Stratford, ‘Everybody knows we are the conference champs, no matter what it says on paper.’ That’s what we believe in our hearts.”
The WIAA’s decision also means Wangelin won’t suit up for Amherst’s baseball team next spring. That team won its first 28 games last year before losing in the Division 3 state semifinals.
Although the final decision wasn’t in his favor, Wangelin said he’s relieved that the matter has been resolved.
“Who’s going to think to ask, ‘Did you play any high school sports when you were in middle school?’” he said. ”I had never really heard of eligibility. I knew that once you were 19, you couldn’t play anymore. I never thought that you had four consecutive years.
“As a 14-year-old in Manawa, I never thought, ‘OK, I’ve only got three more years now,’” he added. “That’s not something I would think about. I’m just thinking about how I love this sport.”