It was a long journey to the State Championship for this season’s Amherst High School football team.
After a 1-9 season in 2009, Mark Lusic led the Falcons to a 4-5 record in his first season as the team’s head coach in 2010.
Amherst turned it around last year and put together what had been the best season in school history with a 10-2 record and a trip to the Level 3 Playoffs in 2011, and then followed it up with an unbeaten record and State Championship this season.
“When I got hired, I had never coached a varsity football team before,” said Lusic, who was an assistant coach at Waupaca High School. “And we came in, we put what we wanted to put in, and the kids responded to us.”
“When Mark and I came in, you see (the underclassmen) and they’re weak, they’re slow, they’re skinny,” said Amherst defensive coordinator Doug Spadoni. “And our team has grown.
“They’re jacked up now, they’re strong guys,” said Spadoni. “And that’s made all of the difference.”
After returning all but a handful of seniors from last year, Amherst entered this season ranked fourth in the state in the WisSports.net Coaches Poll.
In their season opener on Aug. 24 at Wild Rose, the Falcons jumped out to a 54-0 lead at halftime, on their way to a 54-20 win.
Amherst then beat Pacelli 38-0 in its home opener the following week, to set up a showdown with then sixth-ranked Shiocton, which last year shared the Central Wisconsin Conference-8 (CWC-8) Title with the Falcons and finished as the WIAA Division 6 State Runner-up.
Amherst used a pair of touchdown passes from senior quarterback Chris Zblewski to take a 14-0 lead into halftime, and went on to win 20-0.
“It’s like last year was the year of record breaks,” said Zblewski after the Shiocton win. “Everyone thought it was just a magical year and we couldn’t do it (again).
“And we just wanted to prove everybody wrong, that we’re for real,” said Zblewski. “And I guess we’re on the right track right now.”
“The Shiocton game got us over the hump,” said Lusic. “That was the turning point.
“They were a heck of a team too, and when we beat them, we knew we could play with anybody,” he said.
The Falcons then recorded victories over Manawa (26-6), Weyauwega-Fremont (55-12), Wittenberg-Birnamwood (54-14) and Iola-Scandinavia (49-0), to head into the regular season finale against Bonduel on Oct. 12.
There, Amherst stormed out to a 42-0 lead at halftime and went on to a 42-14 win to claim its second consecutive CWC-8 Title and third Conference Title in program history, as it finished unbeaten in the regular season for the first time.
“The kids never had a let-down game,” said Lusic. “The biggest let-down game was Manawa, 26-6, and they were a very good team.”
Along the way, Zblewski said the coaching staff put in countless hours breaking down game film in preparation for each game.
“By Sunday, we get at least the game film up,” said Zblewski. “And by the end of Sunday, we already have offensive comments. By the time we wake up in the morning (Monday), we either have defensive comments, or we have O-line comments.”
“Everything is taught so simple that everyone knows how to do it,” said senior wide receiver/linebacker Max Strand. “It’s like Building Blocks, anybody can do it because they’re so good at teaching. They’re great coaches.”
Many of the Amherst players also put in a number of hours each week on Hudl, a web-based software program that gives players and coaches round-the-clock access to game film.
“(Senior) Logan Hermsen, our defensive lineman, probably leads the state of Wisconsin in most views in Hudl,” said Zblewski. “A lot of guys have smart phones, I have my iPod Touch, and we all have the Hudl app. So during down time, we watch it.”
In the postseason, Amherst hosted victories over Niagara/Goodman/Pembine (64-7) and Marathon (34-7), to advance to the Level 3 Playoffs at home against Stratford on Nov. 3.
With the game tied 14-14, Stratford had first-and-goal at the Amherst seven-yard line with 3:15 left.
However senior safety Caleb Glennon picked off a fourth-down pass and returned it 55 yards, to set up a 24-yard touchdown pass from Zblewski to senior wide receiver Ryan Makuski with 12.2 seconds left to send the Falcons to the State Semifinals with a 21-14 victory.
There, Amherst faced defending State Champion Colby at Community Stadium at Goerke Field, and jumped out to a 27-0 lead in the first quarter.
Zblewski was ultimately lost for the season when he suffered a broken fibula in the second quarter of the 34-6 win that sent the Falcons to the State Championship Game for the first time.
Glennon, who went through drills at quarterback during training camp but hadn’t practiced there since Week 2, got the start in place of Zblewski at state.
“Lusic told me, at the beginning of the year, ‘if Chris goes down, you will be my guy to step into the role,’” said Glennon. “All week, he calmed me down, and talked me through everything.”
Facing a Lancaster team that had won six State Titles and was making its ninth Championship Game appearance, Glennon threw a pair of touchdown passes and the defense turned in another dominating performance, as Amherst won 19-7 to close out its unbeaten season with a 13-0 record.
“It was a special season, and a special group of guys,” said Lusic. “You’ve got to have special players to go to state.
“You need difference-makers, and we have difference-makers all over the field,” said Lusic.
“We always had a lot of talent,” said Glennon. “Once Lusic came in, we started lifting a lot, and he totally changed the thought process around here.
“Everybody worked hard, and we knew we were capable of it,” said Glennon. “But it’s amazing that it actually happened.”
And after winning one game three years ago, when the current seniors were freshmen, this season capped a remarkable turnaround for the Amherst football program.
“They will always tell you that the players got us here, but that’s not the truth,” said Glennon of the coaching staff. “They were amazing.
“As you can tell by our past, we hadn’t even won a playoff game until last year,” said Glennon. “They took us to 4-5 our sophomore year, with a bunch of sophomores starting.
“Last year we turned it around, and we only lost two games, including the Level 3 Game,” said Glennon. “And then this year, it was our goal: state. And we did it.”
“It was a helluva journey,” said Lusic. “A lot of work, a lot of tears. That’s probably the most gratifying, the work you put in.
“And I’m so proud of our kids, they deserve all of the credit,” said Lusic. “They get to raise a banner, 13-0. And they’ll be forever known by that.”