Hoisting state championship trophy was a big boost to tight-knit community
TUSCOLA – He's a year removed, now studying speech communication at Parkland College.
But Joe Vandeventer still gets goosebumps when he thinks about Tuscola's run to the Class 1A state championship last fall.
"It was awesome. It's something I carry with me everywhere I go," Vandeventer said while proudly displaying his championship ring. "Up here, all my teachers know me and what we did just because all the publicity we got during the season last year."
After weeks of debate, talks of wins and losses and playoff points, the eight classes are set. And the 256 teams, for at least one week, have hopes of bringing home a state championship.
Of the 16 area teams in the field, three (St. Joseph-Ogden, Tuscola and Westville) are trying to make it back to Memorial Stadium for the second straight year. But only one, Tuscola, is looking to repeat as state champion.
What people might not realize is that winning a state championship means so much more than a trophy in the hallway or a banner in the gym. It brings a community together. It could play a role in potentially bringing a billion-dollar power plant to town. It can even inspire a once-troubled youth to dream of doing things he never thought possible.
Vandeventer is an example. Before leading Tuscola in receiving last season, he clashed with coaches, didn't take school seriously and was booted from the team.
"I was lazy and just hung with the wrong crowd, didn't want to listen to anybody," Vandeventer said.
Thanks to a second chance from Tuscola coach Stan Wienke and the success he enjoyed as a member of last year's team, Vandeventer turned it around. He keeps up with the current Warriors team and has been to every game this season. "I think I took the Maroa(-Forsyth) loss harder than the team did," he said. He and some other members of last year's team enjoy the reception they receive when they return home.
"Now when we go back, people shake our hands, give us hugs," Vandeventer said. "Kids get piggyback rides and that stuff's awesome. It's a really great feeling."
Vandeventer credits being a part of a state championship team with his wanting to make something of himself. He's hoping to finish his degree at Parkland in three semesters and is working out twice a day in hopes that he can get another shot at playing football one day.
"I want to go to California," he said. "It's a big stretch, but Coach told me there were some good schools looking at me if I had my grades up.
"I don't talk a whole lot about it because I don't want to be one of those guys. I know it's a long shot, but that's my goal. That's what I want to do."
Winning a state championship is good exposure for a town the size of Tuscola. Just ask Mayor Dan Kleiss. Everywhere he goes, one thing always comes up in conversations: Tuscola football.
"Yeah, people like to mention that a lot," he said. "The thing they mention is just how much fun the team is to watch. They like the system and that it's so wide open.
"I've been watching the team for a lot of years now, and I'd have to say that's true. No matter what the situation, you never feel like the team is out of the game because of how quickly they can score."
The success of the Tuscola football team also can impact the town's economy. For more than a year, Kleiss and other officials from Tuscola have been in talks to bring FutureGen, a $1.5 billion power plant, to town. If Tuscola is able to land the project, it's expected to create as many as 150 permanent jobs.
"When we go out and try to sell FutureGen for Tuscola, we sell our schools and we sell the fact that we have a state champion football team," Kleiss said. "The timing of it was pretty good, and we're able to use that in promoting our town. We think at some point it could have some good economical returns."
The economic impact, Kleiss said, hasn't been measured, but there has been an increase in traffic in town, especially on Friday nights.
"I think the crowds seem bigger this year," he said. "I don't know if that's a function of going into the (Okaw Valley) Conference, but also I think it's just that the people want to see a state champion. I think it brings the town even closer because of the exposure it gives Tuscola and people want to put their best foot forward."
Go team go
Shawna Bosch heads the Tuscola Football Parents Club. The group handles decorating the town in black and gold and raises money for the "T" signs you see in people's yards around the community. She said the activity in her group has remained constant in recent years, including this season.
"The whole community has always been behind the team, so we haven't seen much change in that," Bosch said. "If anything, the only thing I can think of is we've received a little more media attention than we have in the past."
Wienke acknowledges winning a state championship means a lot to a town of about 4,500. More than it would to a city the size of, say, Chicago.
"If a school like Chicago Mount Carmel wins a state title, it probably means a lot to the people within a 3-mile radius of Mount Carmel, but otherwise it's not that big a deal," he said. "Our fans enjoyed it quite a bit, but they're not nuts. They go back to their lives and their jobs, and I think that's what they should do.
"It's just like when we tell the kids not to live in the past, because all that stuff is over."
Going for two
Talk to any football fan in Tuscola and he'll tell you all you want to hear about the Warriors repeating. But don't mention the "R word" to Wienke.
"The first two weeks to a month afterward you would see people and they would talk about winning it for a second time, and I cut them short pretty quick," the coach said. "I think after I did that to about 10, 15 people it got around pretty quick not to say anything to me about it."
It's not that Wienke doesn't believe his team can win again, he just thinks it's extremely difficult to do. Parity is to blame.
"If you go around and eliminate the Addison Driscolls and the Sacred Heart-Griffins, not many have won two in a row," he said. "To worry about winning two state championships in a row, that's sort of absurd."
With the playoffs here, it's going to be hard for Wienke not to think about what it would feel like if the Warriors got to hoist the trophy again in five weeks.
"I won't know until it happens," Wienke said. "That would obviously put us in an elite group. It seems to be a lot tougher to do that I would say in 1A, 2A, 3A than it is in the bigger ones where they can just reload.
"You better rebuild at our level. Maybe those big schools can reload, but to win back-to-backs would be big, real big."
Tuscola has 17 seniors on the roster, eight of whom started on defense as sophomores when the Warriors fell in the semifinals.
"I certainly think that will help a lot," Wienke said. "These kids have been through it and they know what it's like when you face the big boys late in the playoffs."
Though Wienke won't offer predictions, Vandeventer and Kleiss were quick to respond.
"Of course. They've got it," Vandeventer said. "They know the playoffs are gonna be a test, but they got it. No one can stop them."
Said Kleiss: "They lost to Maroa, but I liked what I saw. They lost some kids to graduation last year, but this is a real good team. I think they have a real good shot at repeating if they work at it."