Sports editor’s note: This is the sixth installment of the ‘Celebration Saturday’ series highlighting top individual and team achievements in the West Central Tribune area. Today’s story looks at the 1979-80 and ‘80-81 Bird Island-Lake Lillian football and boys basketball teams that won won state championships.
BIRD ISLAND — What Jerry Wohlers remembers about the greatest basketball run in Bird Island-Lake Lillian history happened long before the varsity team won back-to-back state championships.
When the core group was in elementary school, they were regulars in the gym.
“We had great support from our administration, the superintendent, the principal, the custodians,” said Wohler, who coached the Panthers to state Class A titles in 1980 and ‘81. “They just gave me the keys to the gym and told me to have at it. …
“They (the players) were typical gym rats by the time they were in first grade. Those guys were always in the gym and they wanted to be there.”
Wohler remembers bringing a toaster, a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter along with a bag of oranges to feed the group breakfast while they played constantly.
Barry Wohler, the team’s star and Jerry’s son, remembers his father hooking up the television set so he could watch football games while he and his friends played basketball.
As they got older, the competition got stiffer.
“He’d bring in some alumni, guys who were playing in the adult rec leagues,” Barry Wohler said. “Those were some of our toughest games on those Saturdays and Sundays.”
It was a special time to be involved in athletics at Bird Island-Lake Lillian.
The football team won back-to-back titles in 1979 and ‘80. In ‘79, the Panthers beat Harmony 34-6 for the Class C state championship in Faribault. In ‘80, BI-LL beat Mountain Lake 20-7 for the state C title in a game played in Willmar.
“We should have won three football titles in a row,” said Barry Wohler, who was the Panthers’ star quarterback.
Bill Neubauer, a running back/defensive back from the Class of 1980, agreed.
“We lost to Alden-Conger 7-6 in the semifinals,” he said. “I can remember that game, but I can barely remember who we even played my senior year in the championship.
“You remember the losses a lot more than the wins.”
The Panthers played power football. Chuck Munsch was the leading rusher and would get the ball 30 times a game. Wohler rarely threw. He didn’t have to.
“Some of our toughest games were right in our conference,” Wohler said. “We beat Renville in two overtimes and beat Sacred Heart, 12-6.”
The football titles were about an excellent program getting over the hump. BI-LL took second in the state in 1974 and ‘76. In ‘83, the Panthers got back to the state C final, finishing second in Prep Bowl II.
The school district eventually paired with Olivia and has continued its football success. Since 1990, BOLD has been to state 12 times, including runner-up finishes in Class A the last two falls.
But in basketball, the 1980 and ‘81 remain the lone state basketball titles the communities that make up BOLD have claimed. In fact, BOLD hasn’t been to state since BI-LL’s ‘81 title.
Jerry Wohler said that the Panthers had some excellent teams in the 1970s, but couldn’t quite get over the hump in what was then a two-class system in Minnesota.
“There was always somebody bigger than us,” he said, recalling: “We had tremendous crowds, really great community support.
“It was back in the days where we were the entertainment for people.”
BI-LL’s luck in the basketball playoffs changed when the gym rats became varsity high school players.
Two dramatic titles
Both basketball titles were wild and intense. In ‘80, BI-LL beat Lake of the Woods (Baudette) 78-74 in double overtime. Guard John Clouse had 23 points for the Panthers.
The Bears had a huge front line: 6-foot-7, 6-6 and 6-5. But the Panthers were quicker. Barry Wohler, who was the West Central Tribune’s male winner of the Hengstler-Ranweiler Award in 1981, hit the game-winner at the end.
The key, Jerry Wohler said, was BI-LL beating No. 1-ranked and unbeaten Marshall University of Minneapolis in the semifinals.
“It was fun,” said Neubauer, who eventually became BOLD’s head boys basketball coach, getting Jerry Wohler out of retirement to help him as an assistant in 2005.
With that 1980 championship, a good chunk of the key players graduated. Barry Wohler returned. But only two others — Chuck Ryan and Rod Schindler — had seen much playing time going into the 1980-81 season. In ‘80-81, Tom Neubauer, Dennis Heinrich and Tom Undesser were the new key contributors.
And then, Wohler got hurt.
He broke a bone in his left (throwing) wrist during football season, though he didn’t know it at the time. He played with it for the first few games of the basketball season before x-rays showed a break. He was out nine weeks. BI-LL didn’t win a game.
When he came back, the Panthers lost a couple of games with Wohler in the lineup and playing with a sprained ankle. Then, BI-LL caught fire. The Panthers ran the table en route to their second state championship, beating Winona Cotter 49-47 in double OT in the final.
As he did his junior year, Wohler hit a last-second shot to clinch the victory.
Barry Wohler went on to the University of Minnesota, where he was recruited to play football, basketball and baseball. He and John Kloss also ran in the state track meet as part of a 4x100 relay team that took fifth despite both being primarily baseball players.
Wohler gave up football after one season, then was a member of Big Ten Conference championship basketball and baseball teams with the Gophers.
“After coming from high school where we won all the time, we won a couple of titles and I thought that’s how it always works,” Barry Wohler said.
“He always thought he was going to win, no matter what he did,” Jerry Wohler said.
A left-handed pitcher, Barry Wohler was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers and eventually made it to Triple-A before his pro career stalled.
While in the minors, Wohler transferred to St. Cloud State and used his final two years of college eligibility to help lead the Huskies to a pair of North Central Conference championships and a pair of national regional berths.
While his father got out of coaching after the ‘81 title, Wohler has spent his career in athletics. He has been a teacher and coach at Belle Plaine and Marshall, then did a stint as the men’s basketball coach at Hamline University in St. Paul. He’s about to enter his 13th season as the head boys basketball coach at Orono, where he won a state title in 2011 and led the Spartans to state tournament berths in 2010, ‘14 and ‘15.
Neubauer farms in the area. He runs the Tim Orth Foundation, a non-profit that helps area families in need “to assist, financially or otherwise, children (birth to age 18) in the West Central Minnesota area who are facing substantial medical expenses incurred as a result of a serious accident or illness,” according to the website www.timorthfoundation.org.
Neubauer and his wife Janelle helped organize the foundation after Orth, one of his former players, died from an inoperable brain tumor in 1997. The foundation has raised more than $3 million since 1996.
Jerry Wohler is retired and living in Bird Island. He and his wife Rita recently celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary.
Here is a list of stories in the Celebration Saturday series with their publication dates:
May 16 — Alex Carlson and Chris Patten (2000 Litchfield boys tennis)
May 23 — 2009 New London-Spicer football
May 30 — 1985 Willmar girls golf
June 6 — 2005 Paynesville baseball
June 13 — Nikki Swenson (LQPV/D-B cross-country/track, 2007)
June 20 — The 1979-80 and ‘80-81 Bird Island-Lake Lillian football and boys basketball teams