archived photograph
Head coach Jay Buckley lifts the state championship trophy at Camp Randall Stadium 35 years ago. The champs, including Buckley, will be honored at halftime of tonight’s homecoming. A reunion for all former Lakeland football players will be held at 6 p.m at the press box/concession stand.
archived photograph Head coach Jay Buckley lifts the state championship trophy at Camp Randall Stadium 35 years ago. The champs, including Buckley, will be honored at halftime of tonight’s homecoming. A reunion for all former Lakeland football players will be held at 6 p.m at the press box/concession stand.
Football coach Jay Buckley arrived at Lakeland Union High School in 1976 with a vision he was eager to share.  

The problem was, at least at first, there was no one to share it with.

“I told the guys the first time we met, I told the high school guys ‘we’re going to win the state championship,’” said Buckley in a recent interview with The Lakeland Times. “Some of the adults, when I said that, they had a welcoming party for Judy and I that night that we visited, and a couple guys took me over to the side and said, ‘Coach, we like you, we like your philosophy, we like your positiveness, but we will never win a state championship here.”

Buckley and his 1983 team sure had something to say about that, achieving what many thought was his impossible ultimate goal. 

LUHS will commemorate the 35th anniversary of that special season tonight during its homecoming football game against Marquette, Mich. 

In 1976 there was good reason for area citizens to be skeptical of Buckley’s lofty plans. The Thunderbirds had won only a couple conference titles in their history and had never made the playoffs.

That would change once Buckley met former coach and athletic director Forrest Coleman.  

In Coleman, Buckley finally found a man who shared that championship vision.

“Forrest realized that you just couldn’t come in as ninth graders and play against teams that had middle school programs,” Buckley said. “He found a way to start the Peewee football program and I benefited from that.” 

“I never played football other than tossing the ball with your buddies in the field,” said Michael Coconate, one of Buckley’s former lineman.

But football in the Lakeland area was about to advance with the new staff on the sidelines.

In regard to his assistant coaches Jim Bauer, Brian Maki, Al Wooldridge, Pete Kovachic, Bernie Knauer, Pat Kelly and Bill Testin, Buckley said, “The coaches were good coaches. They were young guys. They were just looking for some organization.”

By 1983, seven years after Buckley’s arrival, area kids were learning football concepts much earlier in developmental youth leagues.

“Kids were getting fired up and wanting to play football,” Buckley said. “The seventh graders wanted to be in ninth grade, wanted to wear that jersey.”

And once they got to high school, athletes found a weight and conditioning program in place.

Buckley started a 200-, 250- and 300-pound bench press club, and those who received those respective lifts had their name placed on the weight room wall and they also received a very sought-after T-shirt.

“If you wore a 200 pound bench press club shirt you were kind of a big deal,” Coconate said.

Coconate said that while Lakeland’s offensive and defensive lines were undersized, compared to the competition, but thanks to the organized weight lifting program their size was not a factor.

“Our biggest guy was 195 (pounds). I was 165. We were strong and fast,” Coconate said.

And that speed was prevalent across the team, allowing the T-Birds to utilize four different runners — quarterback Stuart Kirscht, halfback Rod Stengl, halfback Corey Parker and fullback Jamie Nimsgern.  

“We had a great foursome,” Coconate said. “So either Jamie up the middle or Stuart would come back, and pitch it to Corey around the corner. They were both track stars to so they would get on the end corner and just turn right down the field.”

In 1983, going right down the field was a familiar path for the Thunderbirds, and by the end of their non-conference schedule, with wins against Rhinelander, Stevens Point Pacelli, and West Iron County, Mich., Lakeland could see that path continue all the way to Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.

“All of sudden in practice you notice the intensity got better and better,” Buckley said. “All of a sudden they’re 3-0 and they’re thinking, ‘Coach wasn’t lying. We got a shot.’”

After sweeping the Lumberjack Conference, the T-Birds were given their shot with a playoff berth.  

In their first playoff game they beat defending state champs Rice Lake 31-14. Next up was Baldwin-Woodville, and in that game Buckley had to get creative with his motivation in order to get his team to it’s final destination.

“The clincher was we were at about our 40 (yard line) I think and we ran the option and I told Stuart, ‘I don’t think they respect you.’” Buckley said. “I just made that up, you know, and the next play, 235 option, he kept the dang ball and he wasn’t giving it to Jamie and he wasn’t pitching it to Corey. He kept it and went 60 yards to paydirt.”

The Thunderbirds won 22-14. That quarterback keeper paved the path from Lakeland  to Madison.

Following a week of loose practice, including one 20-minute session in a foot of snow, the T-Birds were given a sendoff by the community before their journey that Coconate described as simply “amazing.”

“Every storefront, every business had something in their windows,” he said. “They had a sign painted in their windows ‘Go T-Birds, On to State!’ We had a killer sendoff. It was the biggest thing that had ever hit the community.”

Lakeland was tied with fellow unbeaten Kewaskum 0-0 going into the fourth quarter of the 1983 Division 3 title game, but Lakeland was able to keep its composure, and for good reason. In the fourth quarter the T-Birds would dominate.  

“There was no panic in us,” Buckley said. “They kept themselves calm.”

Well into the fourth quarter, Kirscht was hit in the arm while handing the ball off to Stengl. Fortunately the ball bounced straight back up to Stengl who reversed his run for a 25 yard touchdown. Then Corey Parker intercepted a pass and ran 60 yards for a second touchdown. Paul Sedivy put on the exclamation point with a 95-yard pick-six of his own, and the T-Birds won the game 21-0.

The newly crowned champions were then quickly greeted by the Lakeland community.

“Our fans came down to the fence and I told the guys, I said, ‘Listen, go to that end and start because you deserve the accolades.’ So they went down the fence and kissed and hugged all the people on the other side of the fence,” Buckley said.

One of the people on the other side of that fence was a man Buckley had talked to seven years earlier.

“This one guy who was at that party who said we’d never win a state championship hugs me and whispers in my ear, “Go ahead say it, say it. Say I told you so,’” Buckley recalled. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, well I told you so.’ Of course he was as happy as can be.”

LUHS is now calling any former football players — in particular members of the state championship team —to meet tonight at 6 p.m. by the press box/concession stand for a reunion. The 1983 champs will be announced during a ceremony at halftime.

Jacob Friede may be reached at jacob@lakelandtimes.com or sports@lakelandtimes.com.