FROM STRUGGLES TO STATE: A look inside the turnaround of the HLWW and W-M football programs

A lot can change over the course of four years.

It wasn’t very long ago that the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted and Watertown-Mayer football programs were in shambles. With numbers low in both programs, a possible co-op between the two schools was proposed as a realistic option to help stabilize both programs.

Flash forward to the 2022 football season and not only are the two schools still competing on their own, but they will also both be taking part in the state football tournament.

HLWW will be part of the Class AA state tournament after defeating Norwood Young America in the Section 4AA title game while Watertown-Mayer will be part of the Class AAA state football tournament after knocking off defending state champion Dassel-Cokato in the Section 2AAA title game.

“I’m really glad to see both programs excel right now,” first-year HLWW head coach Adam Birkholz said. “I think it was a good decision by both programs not to pair at the time. Even though I had no connection to either program four years ago, I knew what might happen.”

In a heated school board meeting four years ago, the proposal of a co-op between the two programs fell through and both were forced to figure things out on their own. With low numbers in the program and stuck in a tough district, often competing against bigger schools, success was hard to find for both programs in their first two seasons on their own following the talks of the co-op.

In the 2018 and 2019 seasons, HLWW and W-M combined to 1-36 between the two of them.
“Sometimes you need to weather the storm and take your down years,” Birkholz said about the struggles of both programs. “I knew there would be some good years coming up too if you stick with it. At all levels of football, you have cycles of good years and bad years.”

For W-M coach Andrew Phillips, he was hired heading into the 2018 season and immediately had his hands full. A possible co-op was put on his plate before he even coached a practice followed by back-to-back 0-9 seasons in his first two years. Even with the challenges, he faced early on, he knew eventually things were going to turn around.

“It’s funny to think about that,” Phillips said. “When I was hired as head coach, one of the very first things I had to do was sit down with HLWW’s athletic director and their football coach and talk about a co-op. We sat there and hashed out what things might look like and went through the school board meeting and voting and all that. Not having that co-op happen at that time, I remember thinking that this is going to be a long road ahead but I think we could do it. I thought we had the right people in the right places.”

He was right.

The seniors on this year’s HLWW and W-M football teams have shown what it takes to rebuild a program.
After the 13 seniors on this year’s roster for the Royals endured back-to-back winless seasons, they stuck with it and things began to change in the program. In 2022, W-M snapped a 29-game losing streak by beating Glencoe-Silver Lake on its home field.

A two-win season in 2020 doesn’t seem like much, but it was the start of the beginning of a new direction for the Royals. They followed that up with a seven-win season in 2021 which continued the momentum into the 2022 season which saw them reach the state tournament for the first time since 2002.

“These kids that are seniors on this year’s team were in eighth grade when I started,” Phillips said. “We went 0-9. As freshmen, they went 0-9. That very easily could have been a way out of football and our program for them. We have 18 seniors on our roster this year and 13 of them played all four years. For those kids to stand here after losing all those games, to deal with the COVID year, it’s something special.”

The turnaround has been similar at HLWW. The Lakers snapped an 18-game losing streak in 2019 with an upset win in the first round of the Section 4AA tournament.

The 2020 and 2021 were tough seasons once again as the Lakers won just one game in the two seasons, but this year, HLWW has turned things around in a big way, posting an impressive record of 9-2 heading into the Class AA state tournament.

“They were forced to play at a younger age due to lack of numbers,” Birkholz said. “They took their lumps. I told them at the beginning of the season that they’ve taken their lumps and now it’s their turn to give out those lumps and to excel. It’s their turn to experience success and that’s what they did. They proved me right that it was their turn and they worked hard these past four years to improve. They put the time in. You need to have seniors to have success and that’s what we have this year.”

The leadership and drive for the seniors is the common theme in both programs. While they all could have left the program when things were tough, they stuck it out and are now getting rewarded in the final seasons of their high school careers.

“These kids have been playing multiple years now,” Birkholz said. “They were forced to play at a younger age with the number of kids on the team. I think it was just a matter of them having a lot of experience and maturity as players. Myself and my staff came at the right time, but this is all on the players. The staff can’t take any snaps or do any of that. It’s really a reflection on their ability to play and compete.”

“I remember telling the kids that were seniors that year that it was going to be rough,” Phillips said. “We had low numbers. We were a small and under matched team. I remember telling those guys that in five years I want you to be able to say I was a part of what started this. They can now look back and say that they’re glad they played football for Watertown-Mayer and look where we are at now.”

While the product on the field has taken a big step forward for both the HLWW and W-M football teams this year, the community has dove in as well.

“You can tell that these communities were hungry to get behind a successful football team,” Birkholz said. “They’ve been so supportive. They want to do all these fun things for these kids to make memories. It’s very exciting to see and be a part of.”

“High school football in Watertown is an event now,” Phillips said. “Every Friday night it’s an event. It’s a thing that people are excited about and we’re excited about it. It’s a big culture change all around. From the team and staff to the fans, it’s just all exciting.”

HLWW and W-M will open state tournament play Thursday night in their respective classes. They’ll do so as their own programs just four years after both teams thought a co-op might be the best way to save their programs.

“When you sit back and look at it four years later, we’re playing in the state tournament and they’re playing in the state tournament,” Phillips said. “It’s kind of crazy to think that at one time we were both trying to save our programs and now we’re about to go play on the biggest stage in high school football.”

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