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Changes at Hodapp not new

With a new coach (Jon Konold) bringing to town a passing offense, there's more buzz than usual for the home opener on Friday at Hodapp Field.

But some 30 years ago, the shifts in Cardinal football were like rumble strips on Willmar Avenue. There was a shake-up.

In a 12-month stretch from fall 1977 to fall '78, Willmar helped start a new conference, got a new coach and moved to a stadium for the first time.

Old Hodapp Field, the present soccer field at Kennedy School, was like most fields then and some yet today: A press box on stilts, modest grandstand, cinder track where the kids scurried about and fans were up and down the sidelines. It was good enough to host the 1974 Class C championship game between Battle Lake and Bird Island.

In 1977, the Cardinals played their last season on the old field. It would be Bill Hansen's 33rd and final season. Starting in the 1950s, the Cardinals had been the biggest school and an often dominant force in the West Central Conference.

But in 1977 Willmar joined seven other schools of its size to form the Central Lakes Conference. Hansen's team didn't flinch. With all-state lineman Scott Wierschem clearing the way for all-conference 1,000-yard back Brett Aamot, Willmar finished in a three-way tie for second at 5-2 with St. Cloud's Tech and Apollo, all behind Cambridge 7-0.

After the '77 baseball season, the glorious old ballpark just off the avenue was hauled away to make way for the concrete stadium. Deryl Ramey, 34, a former Gopher center out of Atwater, was hired to replace Hansen.

Ramey's veer offense with motion and misdirection loosened things up, but Willmar was still run-based. Steve "Snorky" Johnson recalls the contrast.

"Bill was an incredibly good coach who stuck with what worked," said Johnson, a local businessman who was a 150-pound wing back in those days. "He was Tom-Landry like; Ramey was demonstrative and his face would get red."

Johnson would score the first Cardinal TD on the new field -- a 12-yard pass from Curt Eischens. But Willmar lost the 1978 opener at the new stadium 20-12 to Fridley Grace, the defending state champion in Class A. Linebacker Kevin Arndt, who became a head coach, was the team's defensive MVP. Fran Smith was a crackerjack punter. Thirty years later, his son would kick, punt and catch passes for the Cardinals.

Tony Nelson was a breakaway running back both in '78 and '79. Kirk Davis, a Willmar businessman, backed up Doug Anderson on the '78 team.

"Hansen liked to push it down the throat but (under Ramey), we opened things up and threw (a lot more)," recalled Davis this week.

Aamot, now a Willmar accountant and a freshman coach, played on Hansen's last team and was a cub reporter for this newspaper in '78 while attending Willmar CC and recovering from a severe knee injury.

"I covered the games, at home and on the road," he remembers. "Ramey was really enthusiastic. But I remember interviewing him and how frustrated he'd get that his team was losing close games. The players were still learning the system."

Ramey won three games that first fall; the six losses were by and average of 3.6 points.

His first four teams went 14-14 in Central Lakes Conference games; then, in 1982, the team finished 6-1 tying with St. Cloud Tech and Elk River for first place.

On the fly

* The freshman team has seemed to embrace the new spread offense. Quarterback Cody Magnuson completed 16 of his first 19 passes and five touchdowns at the Hutchinson scrimmage, Cole Shimek, threw for two more scores.

* Baseball executive Ryan Volz, who brought the Alexandria Beetles to Bill Taunton Stadium twice, continues to eye Willmar for the collegiate Northwoods League. The St. Cloud Times reported Tuesday that he has resigned his VP position with the St. Cloud River Bats with the intention of "being part of an ownership group for a prospective expansion franchise and have targeted the Willmar area for their team, according to league president Dick Raddatz." The 14-team collegiate league has a $750,000 franchise fee.

* Ex-Cardinals Hans Horning and his younger brother, Tyler, are still playing going into the final weekend of the amateur baseball tournament at Gaylord and Arlington. Hans plays right field for Orthopedic Sports Center, St. Cloud, which is undefeated through the first two weekends in Class C. Tyler is a middle infielder for the Cold Spring Springers, which is playing in the Class B elimination bracket.

* Gretchen Dahl (WHS '02), who lettered three years in tennis and hockey and played hockey at UW-Superior, is the new varsity girls tennis coach and teaches English at Faribault.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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