1985 football team recognized in Manawa
By Holly Neumann
The only Little Wolf High School team to win a state championship reunited Aug. 25 for the Wolves’ home football opener.
Although the Wolves came up short in their nonconference matchup with Marshall, the school recognized the 1985 Division 5 state championship team at halftime.
Manawa defeated DeSoto 14-6 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison and finished the 1985 season undefeated.
Bob Lieberman, who went on to be inducted in the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, coached the team,
“This team was special and it all started before the season,” he said. “Five or six players went down to the Wisconsin Badgers Football Camp in Madison. I asked them what they learned. They told me, ‘Tennis shoes work better than cleats on artificial turf.’ Right there, that told me they had plans to be playing on that turf again.”
The team was not big or fast, but knew how to make plays, according to Lieberman.
“They didn’t miss blocks and they didn’t miss tackles,” he said. “They did make big plays and it was that way throughout the year.”
The Wolves came into the championship game with a 10–0 record and had won their fourth straight Central Wisconsin Conference championship.
DeSoto opened the game with a 79-yard touchdown run on the first play, but the Pirates never saw the end zone again.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is not a good start,’ but these boys found a way to win,” Lieberman said. “It was remarkable.”
Brian Rill scored both of Manawa’s touchdowns on a 1-yard quarterback run and returned an interception to seal the win.
The Wolves ended the game with less than 100 yards of offense. Rill completed two of six passes for 18 yards and DeSoto held Manawa to 50 rushing yards on 37 attempts.
Rill recalled it was cold and windy.
“When you go from Manawa to Madison, it is quite a shock,” he said. “It was pretty overwhelming. We were the underdog. It all came down to being prepared and doing what we were coached to do. That was a big part of our success.
“This was a great group of guys to play with,” he added. “We had a lot of community support. On a Friday night, if you weren’t there, there was something wrong. There was nothing else going on.”
Bob Lowney was the team’s running back, middle linebacker and kicker.
“Football was everything,” he said. “It was the tradition that Manawa had for constantly winning. You never wanted to be that team that did not win conference. We worked hard. I remember Rill and I talking and saying we could not believe what is going on. It was crazy.”
Winning a state title was important not only for the team, but also the community, Lowney said.
“Due to the winning tradition here in Manawa, bringing back that gold ball was very important,” he said. “That win was for everyone.”
John Smith, an offensive and defensive tackle on the team, helped organize the reunion.
“Our team had two standout players and the rest of us were just average, but coach instilled in us that we were a team. We were friends first, teammates second and we never wanted to let each other down.”
Everyone doing their job the way they were coached was key to the team’s success, Smith said.
“Being friends really made this special for us,” he said. “Without one of us, this team would not have been where we were. We played together and are still friends today.”
Rill and Lowney offered advice to present and upcoming Manawa football players.
“Work hard,” Lowney said. “When you walk out of the field, take three seconds to look around and enjoy it. Soak it in. It will be over before you know it.”
Rill encouraged players to bring everything they have on the field.
“Love the guys you play with and respect the staff that is coaching you,” he said. “On game day, when the clock reaches zero, hopefully you’re on the right end.
“At the end of the day, it’s not really the most important thing,” he said. “It is a unique experience that you have shared with other people.”