For 27 years Tom Crowe roamed the sideline as the head football coach at Augusta. He took the Beavers to heights they had never reached before and have yet to match since, but if you look around his house, you’d never know about the magical 1989 season.
“I’ve never been a memento guy,” Crowe said.
Instead, tucked away in the corner of his garage is a box filled with memories from Augusta’s 1989 Division 6 championship season.
Even the boys from that team, all of whom are now in their mid-to-late 40s, don’t think about that season much.
Some, like Crowe, have boxes passed down from their parents filled with newspaper clippings and photos from that year. When they get together on an occasional vacation they’ll reminisce about the games, the practices and their high school days, but it’s not something they cling to regularly. Friday night, however, prior the Beavers game against Eleva-Strum, Augusta will have an opportunity for the town to come together and commemorate the boys who put the town in the WIAA record book 30 years ago.
“I don’t think about winning the football championship as much as I think about the guys I played with,” then-quarterback Brian Vandehey said.
For Vandehey and the ‘89 class, the championship was the culmination of a six-year journey when they first realized their talent in middle school.
At first it was outside at recess, where they’d go out and play tackle football as much as they could. It would get them in trouble with the teachers who wanted them to stop, according to Mike Bechtel, the team’s star junior running back in 1989.
When it came to organized football, their talent was clear.
“Our middle school coach said if we stuck together and played as a team, we had the potential to do something special,” said Joel Steinke, the team’s senior linebacker and offensive tackle. “I think that stuck in our brains.”
After a 28-0 loss to Hilbert ended the 1988 season, the class of ‘89 had one more chance to live up to its lofty expectations.
The boys didn’t disappoint.
The ‘89 Beavers were unstoppable in the regular season, cruising to an undefeated record. Their biggest test came against undefeated Melrose-Mindoro on October 19, but Augusta squeaked by with a 20-17 victory to clinch the conference title and a playoff spot.
In the playoffs, Augusta beat Greenwood 49-7 and Alma-Gilmanton 31-16, before advancing to the state semifinals where they faced off against the undefeated and reigning Division 6 champions Turtle Lake Lakers.
The game was close at halftime, but with a deeper roster, Augusta pulled away in the second half, eventually routing Turtle Lake 48-15.
As Crowe began subbing out his stars, Zimmerman paused briefly to take in the moment.
“I looked around our little Augusta centennial field and it had to be four people deep around our track, the bleachers were completely full,” he said. “It had to represent our entire community. It was the first time that I realized how big this was.”
For Steinke, it felt like Christmas.
“I can remember crying,” he said. “But the excitement that was quickly reigned in by Coach Crowe saying, ‘You didn’t just make it to Madison, now you have to win.’”
In the championship game, the Beavers took on the Kickapoo Panthers.
It looked like it was going to be a close game early, with neither team able to score in the first half. But late in the second quarter, disaster struck for the Beavers.
Bechtel tried to tackle Kickapoo’s running back, but Bechtel landed awkwardly, injuring his shoulder.
“I thought it was out of its socket,” he said. “I thought I was done.”
“He looked like he was going to die,” Steinke remembered.
Bechtel went back to the locker room to see the team trainer. He remembers being unable to lift his arm and he said his pain was a seven-out-of-ten. But just the thought of not returning in the championship game was “gut-wrenching.”
“To lose him would have been devastating,” Crowe said. “Everything we did involved him.”
Fortunately for the Beavers, Bechtel returned with just a stinger.
Each team scored touchdowns in the second half, tying the game at 6-6 before overtime.
Augusta won the coin toss and started on defense.
For unknown reasons, Kickapoo deviated from its running game in the extra period and drew up a brilliant pass play with the game on the line.
The Panthers quarterback rolled out toward Zimmerman who was playing in coverage.
“I was one-on-one with the quarterback and I had a decision to make,” Zimmerman remembered. “I was either going to drop back into coverage and take the receiver, but I realized if I did that, this guy is going to walk right in, or I had to pursue, and count on Mike Bechtel to be there covering my guy deep. So I opted to go for the quarterback and I just beelined for him and he threw the ball up.”
Bechtel rolled toward the receiver and jumped for the ball which soared just over his outstretched arms. The receiver came down with it, but he was out of bounds.
Now it was the Beavers’ turn on offense.
Crowe went to Augusta’s bread-and-butter play, a 26-kickout.
“I don’t think anyone was going to keep me out of the end zone,” Bechtel said.
Vandelay pitched Bechtel the ball and fullback John Walker cleared the way for Bechtel to bounce it to the outside and take flight for the end zone.
“I think from the four yard line out I was airborne,” he said. “It seemed like I dove forever.”
Crowe didn’t even see the play. He just listened for the roar.
“All of a sudden everyone was jumping up and down,” he remembered.
The rest was just a blur, according to Crowe.
The bus ride home was mayhem. In Osseo, a police escort picked up the team and led them into the town.
“We couldn’t even get the bus through the downtown,” Crowe said.
When he finally got home, his house was packed with fans. Finally, after hours of celebration, he sat down and was able to take in the moment.
In the 30 years since, Crowe said he doesn’t think about it much. He said he occasionally sees the boys from that team and he takes pride in the men they’ve become.
They’ve all gone their separate ways, scattered across the Midwest and greater United States. But for the town, that year is still special and on Friday night that special season will be honored in Augusta.