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The thick, the thin and the sometimes non-existent at Wabasha-Kellogg

Athletics have run the gamut at Wabasha-Kellogg, including its students sometimes having too little interest in specific sports to even field teams. But this has been no across-the-board athletics wasteland, either, with some striking success stories.

Wabasha-Kellogg girls basketball
Wabasha-Kellogg substitute players cheer after a basket is scored during a girls basketball game against Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, at Wabasha-Kellogg High School in Wabasha. There are just nine players in this season's W-K high school basketball program.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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The last time the Wabasha-Kellogg football team had a winning season was in 1996. Before that, it was 1987.

And the last state football appearance for the Falcons? 1983.

Tim Klingbeil has completed 10 years as W-K’s head football coach. He’s got a cumulative record of 21-61, which by historical Wabasha-Kellogg football standards isn’t too bad.

His .344 winning percentage ranks second all-time among W-K football coaches.

“This was a difficult job when I took it, and I knew that,” said Klingbeil, who is also the Falcons’ activities director. “But this is a great place, with great people, great citizens and with people who are thankful in athletics and the classroom.

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“In football, we are going to just keep trying and keep grinding.”

That Klingbeil motto isn’t just a useful one for a football program that went 0-9 in 2021, didn’t have enough participants to field a team in 2020, and won a combined three games the two prior seasons. W-K has had difficulties competing in a variety of its sports in the last decade. That includes girls basketball, which before this season went two straight years without fielding a varsity team, and a W-K wrestling program that has dwindled all the way down to nine athletes this season.

Klingbeil knows how it works. Athletes and their families are attracted to programs that are having success, especially the sustained kind.

Once that success is apparent, things can turn and for a long time. W-K has examples of that, too, with volleyball and softball programs that have long been among the best in their Three Rivers Conference. The W-K dance program has been excellent as well, including having finished fifth at state in high kick competition in 2020 and just missed getting to state in 2021.

Read more from Pat
Mayo's Spencer Busch and Tej Bhagra cruised to the Section 1AA doubles championship, winning both their matches in straight sets.
(Blooming Prairie, Caledonia/Spring Grove, Chatfield, Winona Cotter, Dover-Eyota, GMLOKS, RACE, Hayfield, Kenyon-Wanamingo/Goodhue, La Crescent, Lake City, Lanesboro/Fillmore Central/Mabel-Canton), Lewiston-Altura, Lyle/Pacelli, Medford, Pine Island, Lourdes, Rushford-Peterson, Houston, St. Charles, Triton, Wabasha-Kellogg, Zumbrota-Mazeppa)
(Blooming Prairie, Caledonia/Spring Grove, Chatfield, Winona Cotter, Dover-Eyota, GMLOKS, RACE, Hayfield, Kenyon-Wanamingo/Goodhue, La Crescent-Hokah, Lake City, Lanesboro/Fillmore Central/Mabel-Canton), Lewiston-Altura, Lyle/Pacelli, Medford, Pine Island, Lourdes, Rushford-Peterson, Houston, St. Charles, Triton, Wabasha-Kellogg, Zumbrota-Mazeppa)

Baseball has also done reasonably well, including a trip to the state tournament in 2017. In boys basketball, W-K teams have generally been a tad under .500, but starting with the 2015-16 season, it had three straight winning years.

But making some of the other programs such as football, girls basketball and wrestling more competitive — and in some cases getting them to exist at all — that has been a challenge.

But why?

“Sports are momentum based,” Klingbeil said. “When things are going well, people want to be a part of it. But when things are dusty, it’s hard to jump in. As an athletic director, I’ve spent a lot of time acting as a therapist, with coaches lamenting about our challenges.”

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One of Wabasha's and Kellogg’s problems is all that they have to offer. Theirs is an outdoors paradise, an ideal and idyllic area to fish, hunt, ski (water and snow), hike, bike, swim and go boating.

Not many communities have all of that. But what works for Wabasha and Kellogg in terms of recreation, can work against them when it comes to organized sports and getting athletes in the weight room in the summer months, an act deemed crucial in most sports, but especially football.

Wabasha-Kellogg girls basketball
The bike path is pictured Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, in Wabasha. Wabasha and Kellogg offer so many outdoors activities, and in such idyllic settings, that it can be tough to draw their high school athletes into the gym or the weight room.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

“We don’t get the numbers,” said W-K assistant football coach Chris May, a 30-year-old and former standout all-around athlete at Southland High School and then Winona State, where he played football. “Some kids in our area say that they’d rather fish or hunt (than go out for a sport). It’s frustrating, because a kid can still have a whole life and go out for a sport.”

A numbers game

When it comes to Wabasha-Kellogg athletics, there is one challenge that stands above the rest. It is the school’s sheer lack of numbers.

A community that was once stocked with young families, isn’t anymore. Increasingly, Wabasha and Kellogg — with their stunning bluffs, Mississippi River, eagles flying overhead, and all of their outdoors offerings, including a skill hill — have become retirement and recreation communities.

Tim Klingbeil mug - Wabasha-Kellogg Football 2018
Tim Klingbeil

But with fewer young families has come an ever-shrinking school enrollment. And in athletics, a lack of numbers is often a death knell for competing.

“There just aren’t many young families moving to town,” Klingbeil said. “When I first got here, we had a senior class that was in the 70s (for enrollment). Now, our senior class has 34 kids. It’s tough going against schools that have a graduating class of 80.”

In the Falcons’ Three Rivers Conference, there are 11 schools — W-K, Fillmore Central, St. Charles, Lewiston-Altura, Caledonia, Plainview-Elgin-Millville, Winona Cotter, La Crescent, Rushford-Peterson, Chatfield and Dover-Eyota.

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The biggest among them is Plainview-Elgin-Millville, with a grade 9-12 enrollment of 444 students. Next up is Dover-Eyota (325), followed by La Crescent (300), St. Charles (268) Caledonia (258) and Chatfield (252). At the bottom is Fillmore Central (138), followed closely by Wabasha-Kellogg (147).

Only one other Three Rivers school, Rushford-Peterson (174 students), has an enrollment under 200. The smallest among them, Fillmore Central, has always fielded teams in every sport. Helping keep things alive and competitive for Fillmore Central is it having cooped with other neighboring schools in lots of sports, such as wrestling (Mabel-Canton and Lanesboro joining it), cross-country (Lanesboro), baseball (Lanesboro), softball (Lanesboro) and boys and girls track and field (Lanesboro and Mabel-Canton).

“When you add Lanesboro to us, it gets our (student population) up with some of the bigger schools in the Three Rivers,” Fillmore Central Activities Director and football coach Chris Mensink said. “We definitely have been able to compete with some of the bigger schools. But every sport is different. We’ve struggled in boys basketball recently (where there is no co-op, same as girls basketball and football), but we can pick up enough non-conference games (mostly against Class A Southeast Conference schools) that it’s worked out OK.”

Wabasha-Kellogg has stayed away from the co-op route save for one sport, wrestling. There, it combines with Pepin, Wis., but gets just a trickle of kids moving over from there to the W-K program.

Wabasha-Kellogg girls basketball
Banners are displayed on the wall during a girls basketball game against Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, at Wabasha-Kellogg High School in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Klingbeil has always favored going it alone, if possible. But he figures that soon, co-oping is going to be a more universal thing in Falcons sports.

“People take a lot of pride in us being the Wabasha-Kellogg Falcons,” he said. “But those (co-oping) conversations are ones I’m sure we’re going to be having in the next five years. We’ve not had them yet, but I’m sure we will be.”

Wabasha-Kellogg did make one push for a hefty change. This past fall, W-K applied to join the Southeast Conference, a league inhabited by schools its size and smaller. It’s a move that former Three Rivers Conference schools Kingsland and Southland successfully made the last few years.

But Klingbeil says the Southeast voted against letting them in, mostly for logistics reasons. The trip to Wabasha was further than most of those school districts were willing to take. The distance from Southeast Conference schools Spring Grove and Mabel-Canton to Wabasha — two of the most extreme examples — is in excess of 70 miles, for both.

A tough commute

Geography is working against Wabasha-Kellogg in another way, too.

As attractive as those communities are, they are long distances from any town with a large population — 42 miles from Rochester and nearly 80 miles from the Twin Cities.

Wabasha-Kellogg girls basketball
Downtown is pictured Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, in Wabasha. Wabasha is 42 miles from Rochester, 80 miles from the Twin Cities.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Finding quality coaches for the youth and high school levels can be a challenge for any community. But it’s even tougher when you’re Wabasha-Kellogg, situated so far from larger population hubs. With few prospective coaches willing to make the long drive to Wabasha from Rochester or the Twin Cities, it’s left W-K with a small pool of potential coaches to choose from.

Finding coaches and retaining them has been tricky for Klingbeil. W-K girls basketball has had five head coaches in the last 10 years, though Klingbeil says he’s currently thrilled with the coaches Wabasha-Kellogg has in place, in all sports.

But his fear is always that somebody is going to move on, knowing that finding that next good coach for W-K is rarely easy.

“We’re too far from Rochester and too far from the Cities, and we are landlocked by the river and Wisconsin,” Klingbeil said. “So we don’t have a deep pool of talented coaches to choose from.”

Wabasha-Kellogg girls basketball
Wabasha-Kellogg head coach Mike Archer reacts after a basket is scored during a girls basketball game against Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, at Wabasha-Kellogg High School in Wabasha. Archer drives 44 miles in for practice every day, from Pine Island.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

One coach who has been willing to make that drive is Mike Archer.

Archer, 57, is in his first season of directing the Wabasha-Kellogg girls basketball team. He makes a daily trek from Pine Island to Wabasha. Archer had been a longtime girls basketball assistant to Rochester John Marshall’s Phil Schroeder before taking the W-K job.

Archer has inherited a program that went the two previous years without having a varsity girls basketball team, due to a lack of numbers and interest. Dance has become a popular and successful program at Wabasha-Kellogg, with 30 girls out for the sport this year, grades 7-12. That’s diminished the numbers for girls basketball, with just nine out this season at W-K, grades 7-12.

Archer, who’s now in charge of the high school and youth girls basketball programs at Wabasha-Kellogg, says this experience has so far been pretty close to nirvana for him. Archer has forever wanted to be a head high school coach, and he says he’s getting all of the support he could possibly want at Wabasha-Kellogg.

“This is really fun, and that is the key word for me — fun,” said Archer, who has two seniors, one sophomore, three freshmen, two eighth-graders and one seventh-grader on the team.

“The girls bought into what I’m doing right right away. I’ve also had the full support of the school, and the parents also bought in. These girls make it fun. They make it exactly what it should be.”

W-K played an extremely limited varsity regular-season schedule this season, with just four games. Minnesota Academy for the Deaf was on the schedule twice, and Schaeffer Academy and St. Charles once each.

Still, W-K sophomore Ileana de Angel is excited for anything they can get. She likes where she believes the program is headed under Archer.

“I appreciate this even more than a lot of people would think,” de Angel said. “We struggled a lot last year, and a lot of people looked down on us. But we’ve come back stronger than ever. I think in the past that people didn’t really want to be a part of the basketball team here because we’d struggled. But the girls out for basketball are dedicated to it now. This season has been really enjoyable, and we’re working hard.”

Plenty of successes, too

Though there have been sports program struggles at Wabasha-Kellogg, there have also been successes.

The Falcons’ volleyball program has been a perennial power in the Three Rivers Conference and won a state championship in 2010. They did much of that under Tara Biever, who directed the program for 11 years until dying of cancer in October of 2017. Her daughter, Kalyn Merten, became the Falcons’ head coach this past season.

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Wabasha-Kellogg head coach Tara Biever talks with players during a subsection championship match against Mabel-Canton in 2012. Biever, who built W-K volleyball into a power, died in 2017 after a battle with uterine cancer.

Biever was known for all of the work she put in at the youth level, helping develop youngsters into eventual excellent high school players.

The future of W-K volleyball looks strong all over again, with its seventh and eighth-grade levels both going unbeaten this season.

It has been getting kids to fall in love with volleyball at the youngest levels that Merten says has been the key to the Falcons’ success. And they do get at it early. This past summer, W-K had summer volleyball camps for kindergarten through second-graders and third through sixth-graders. Wabasha-Kellogg also has strong Junior Olympic volleyball programs with school connections.

“We’ve had a good culture of getting kids excited about it when they’re young,” said Merten, who played on W-K varsity teams that made it to the Section 1A championship four straight years, from 2009 through 2012. “Once they’re excited about it, they stick with it.”

Wabasha-Kellogg girls basketball
A “State Champs” article from winning a Class A girls volleyball Championship in 2010 and other trophies are displayed in a case on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, at Wabasha-Kellogg High School in Wabasha.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

When it comes to choosing W-K’s longest-running sports success story, softball likely gets the nod.

In great part, that’s because the Falcons have forever had the same devoted head coach, Mike Schumacher.

The 64-year-old Schumacher has led W-K softball for 42 years, making him one of the longest-tenured coaches in the state.

A graduate of Sleep Eye Saint Mary’s and then the University of Minnesota, Morris, Schumacher showed up to teach high school math at Wabasha-Kellogg in 1980 and has never left.

He took over the W-K softball program upon his arrival. Success wasn’t immediate, with only about 30 total wins for him the first 10 years. But then things took a dramatic turn thanks to him cranking things up a notch.

“It was at that point that I knew I either had to walk away from softball or get a summer program going like we had in baseball, with multiple teams for multiple ages,” Schumacher said.

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Wabasha-Kellogg players celebrates after winning a Section 1A softball championship on June 10, 2021 during the high school season.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin file photo

Schumacher went for it.

His first winning season at W-K came in 1993. The Falcons followed that with Sub-section championships in 1994, 1995 and 1996. The winning has never stopped, including trips to the state tournament in 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2021. W-K has also been to the section championship game nine times under Schumacher.

“The success we’ve had is 100% because of the summer league we established for kids,” he said. “Our kids in the 1980s just didn’t have enough experience playing.”

'Winning isn't everything'

It hasn’t been for lack of effort or staying flexible that Wabasha-Kellogg football has struggled forever, with just two winning seasons in 34 years and no season at all in 2020.

The weight room is open all summer for those football players who want to take advantage of it, though attendance is scarce. Wabasha-Kellogg offers flag football for kids in grades three and four, then padded football for grades five and six. There are also youth football camps each summer.

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The Wabasha-Kellogg 2021 football team posed for its team picture on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021.
Andrew Link / Post Bulletin file photo

“We try to build from the ground up,” said Klingbeil, whose best season was in 2017, when the Falcons finished 4-4. “Right now we have five fifth-graders who play football. We want to keep those five happy.”

Klingbeil has been resourceful, too, allowing kids in W-K’s other fall sport — cross country — to also join the football team.

“We’ve gotten a few cross-country kids,” he said. “We try to share kids in all of our programs. I’ve had times when I've looked at the sidelines and said, ‘Who is that?’ And they’ll tell me it’s a cross-country kid who joined the football team late.”

The message that Klingbeil wants his players to absorb and adopt is that winning and losing truly isn’t everything. What he says counts most is getting his athletes to lay it all out there, no matter the final outcome.

He wants them to regard joining the W-K football team as an opportunity. When he’s witnessed his players crying at season’s end, overcome that their experience is done, he knows they’ve caught on. And he's seen it plenty over the years.

“When I see tears, I know it’s mattered to them,” he said. “And when you see that, it’s a powerful thing.”

Jack Rodeghier played football for W-K the last four years.

The senior fullback/defensive end cherished his time on the football team, and he says he wasn’t nearly alone.

“W-K has a great football program, and we had a great group of kids and great coaches there who kept us playing,” Rodeghier said. “I played for my school, I played for myself and I played to have fun. I never even looked at the scoreboard. I just played to have fun and to be on the team. We all stuck together, through thick and thin.”

Pat has been a Post Bulletin sports reporter since 1994. He covers Rochester John Marshall football, as well as a variety of other southeastern Minnesota football teams. Among my other southeastern Minnesota high school beats are girls basketball, boys and girls tennis, boys and girls track and field, high school and American Legion baseball, volleyball, University of Minnesota sports (on occasion) and the Timberwolves (on occasion). Readers can reach Pat at 507-285-7723 or pruff@postbulletin.com.
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