OFHS won state football title 20 years ago

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Hard work paid off for 1997 Panthers
By: 

Greg Bates Times Herald Correspondent

It’s a game the Oconto Falls football players won’t soon forget.

A Thursday night in late November 1997 at Camp Randall Stadium, the WIAA Division 3 state title on the line.

Oconto Falls’ defense didn’t allow any second-half points as the Panthers broke a 14-all tie in the third quarter en route to a 28-14 victory over Slinger. It was Oconto Falls’ first and only state football title.

“Being a coach’s kid and going down to the state finals a few times, I guess playing football as a kid in Wisconsin that’s something you dream about,” star running back Nate Rogatzki said. “We always grew up as big Badgers fans, so that was pretty cool to be able to play on that field.”

The former players can’t believe it has been 20 years since the magical season.

“It seems like anytime we get together with any of the guys that played together on that team, there’s definitely a lot of reminiscing and there’s a lot of specific details that everybody can kind of recall,” said Joe Porior, who played both ways at right guard and middle linebacker.

Duane Rogatzki, who made it to three state titles games in his 35 years as head coach, remembers when the final buzzer went off and his team was crowned state champ.

“It was kind of an amazing feeling,” he said. “Before the game my son was nervous as hell and I just looked at him and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You were born to be here,’ and that’s kind of how I felt about the whole day, that we were somehow going to find a way to get it done.”

Oconto Falls got it done all season.

The Panthers finished 12-2. Porior remembers the Green Bay Press-Gazette picking Oconto Falls to finish in the middle of the Packerland Conference. Another media outlet had the team finishing second to last, Nate Rogatzki recalls. Those predictions drove the players to succeed.

“It’s almost like everybody had something to prove and everybody worked their tails off,” said Rogatzki, who ran for over 1,700 yards on the season and is the school’s all-time leading rusher. “It was just one of those things where everything just kind of came together.”

The Panthers only had a couple of returning key players off the previous season’s team, but the guys turned into one cohesive unit. Coach Rogatzki said eight guys played both ways and four essentially never left the field, playing on special teams as well.

“We had a bunch of guys that really worked hard in the offseason, and we were all just dedicated to the team,” Porior said.

Oconto Falls won its first seven games before falling, 35-9, at Southern Door. With the Packerland title now out of reach, the Panthers had a lackluster effort in the regular-season finale, losing to Kewaunee, 26-14.

The three senior captains, Rogatzki, Porior and quarterback Ryan Usiak, called a team meeting after the two straight losses.

“We got together and said, ‘If we’re not going to play hard every game, we’re not going to make it very far,’” said Nate Rogatzki, who currently works as a foreman at Nick Holtger Construction.

Oconto Falls opened the postseason with a 22-21 victory over West De Pere. The next game, the Panthers took down Freedom, 22-15, in a hard-fought matchup. Level 3 saw Oconto Falls beat Kimberly, 20-14, on a late touchdown and interception to seal the win.

“Whenever we were behind or whenever we needed somebody to make a play, somebody always came up and made a big play,” said Porior, who is now the assistant farm manager at Peterson’s Dairy in Lena.

Against Barron in the state semifinals in Rhinelander, Oconto Falls jumped out to a 22-7 lead before Barron scored twice before halftime. The Panthers owned the second half and scored a 43-22 win.

In the state title game vs. Slinger, the Owls took the opening kickoff and marched down the field in six plays for a touchdown. The Panthers weren’t rattled.

“I looked at my assistants and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We haven’t had the ball yet,’” said coach Rogatzki, who retired after the 2012 season.

Junior fullback Chad Blahnik scored on a 6-yard run, capping a nine-play, 55-yard drive to tie the score. Rogatzki, who rushed for 174 yards on 27 carries, notched Oconto Falls’ second touchdown as the game went into halftime, 14-14.

In the third quarter, Rogatzki caught a 33-yard touchdown pass from Usiak to put his team up 21-14. Oconto Falls sealed the win with a 6-yard score to tight end Tony Nicholson. Late in the contest, Blahnik, who also rushed for over 1,000 yards on the season, secured an interception as Oconto Falls closed out its state title.

“It really was pretty incredible to know that all those years of hard work, and hours and hours and hours in the weight room and doing plyometrics and working with the coaches in the offseason, all that work paid off,” Porior said.