I had the chance to catch the Greendale - Wisco playoff game with my wife this weekend, and while it was definitely one of the more exciting prep football games I've ever seen, one of the first thoughts running through my mind as we left had little to do with either the Vikings or the Panthers. As it happens, I was actually thinking that next year's South Milwaukee Rockets had better get their act together right now. Next year could be a lot tougher than they expect, and not just because some hoodlums from Cudahy might drop by to spray-paint our field.
You see, for next year the Rockets are leaving the rugged Southeastern Conference, where their enrollment makes them the smallest of nine schools, and (re)joining the Woodland. This is a smallest-to-largest transition for them, because SMHS will-- again, by general enrollment figures only-- immediately become the biggest school in their new conference. And with that status will come some unfair expectations.
In many high school sports, big schools usually-- but not always-- come out ahead of their smaller brethren. In prep football, this often leads to a lot of assumptions about who comes out ahead in the standings before the games are ever played. Well, now that I've seen just about all of the Woodland teams play in person these last few years-- many of them this past season alone-- I think this kind of overconfidence born of enrollment-based assumptions could very well doom the Rockets before they start. What could easily be a 2009 of great promise and great results could wind up as just another ho-hum year for Rocket Football.
Don't believe me? Let's look at the last time South Milwaukee joined the Woodland-- 1993. (SMHS spent 1993 - 1997 in the Woodland before moving to the reconfigured SEC.) That season, South Milwaukee was coming off three straight 4 - 4 finishes in the powerful Suburban Park Conference. Keep this in mind-- you wouldn't know it from listening to people in town, but back then, a 4 - 4 season was disappointing to the locals. How times have changed, and not for the better.
Anyhow, it was in 1993 that SPC powers West Allis Central, West Allis Hale, Muskego, and Kettle Moraine (along with annual doormat Oak Creek) were first replaced with Franklin, Brookfield Central and East, and the Wauwatosa schools. Not a one of those five new schools had any sort of football tradition, and they all represented communites that were relatively affluent. Back in the day the stereotypical "rich kid" schools meant kids who weren't tough enough to play football, not kids who were afforded the finest summer camps, equipment, playing surfaces and coaching staffs that money can buy. That trend (we'll call it the "Homestead Effect" in future columns) was still a few years down the road.
It was easy to look at the schedule before the season and mark up a 'W' by every one of those schools, along with SPC holdover Greenfield. Cudahy was coming off an 0-8 year; only defending champion Greendale should pose any kind of problem. Right? That's what a lot of people thought. One of my younger brothers was a senior that year, and I remember friends and family expecting one heck of a great season.
Things didn't quite turn out that way. John still had a good year individually, but the team was terrible. The blocking was inconsistent at best, the defense was atrocious, the receivers couldn't catch a pass and the backs weren't much of a threat on the ground. Needless to say, every one of those "soft" teams (with the notable exception of Franklin) beat our Rockets, and soundly.
A lot changes in fifteen years, but there's a lesson to be learned here for today's South Milwaukee kids. Greendale's not the only Woodland team I caught this year; I've seen Eisenhower and Cudahy, and of course Thomas More. In the past few seasons I've seen perennial Woodland contenders Pewaukee and St. Francis play as well. Now while the talent and turnout for these programs really runs the gamut, several of them compare favorably with South Milwaukee. In football, it's not about enrollment in the school-- it's about the kids you put on the field.
The top teams in the Woodland field very competitive youth programs with high participation at every level, and that continues up through high school. As Greendale showed against Wisconsin Lutheran, and like Eisenhower proved against D.C. Everest earlier this year, Woodland teams can compete with the best in the state at any level.
I saw South Milwaukee this year, and they can and should play with-- and beat-- any team in that conference next season. They'll have the numbers and they'll have the returning players at key positions to make an impact in football... if they want to. But they have to cut down on the turnovers and inconsistent play that always seem to mark Rocket football since time out of mind. They need to take the offseason seriously and show up as a team for things like passing league, weight training and captains' practices. And on top of all that, as they enter this new conference, they need to view their new rivals with confidence, but not cockiness.
If they don't, it'll just be 1993 all over again. And while that might play better than a graffiti binge in Cudahy, it won't be much fun around here.