Marinette High School Sports Hall Of FameIssue Date: October 18, 2018
By Jerry Harpt
As a young kid in the early 1950's, I couldn't wait for the M&M football game to be played at Lauerman Field on Water Street in Marinette. I lived two blocks from the field and, while at home, could hear the roar of the crowd, like the people were in my back yard. 7,000 and 8,000 fans created the seismic noise in those days. As a young kid, I would have given anything to have carried the helmets of Bebo Pazdera, or Dan Kunesh. I also found myself tongue-tied around coaches with names like Batterman and Basler.
Sometimes the players helped me sneak into the game by placing my friends and me between them as they walked from Water Street, through the stadium gates. Once inside, we broke from the players, ran down the cinder track, and hid among the crowd.
As I grew older I had new heroes with names like Erv Kunesh, Pete Messenger, and Tom Pfaffl. I remember watching them play basketball in the little cracker-box gym. Oh, if only I had muscles like Kunesh, I thought.
And now, 60 years later, I find myself sitting at a sports banquet, at Little River Country Club, honoring a new host of Marinette high school sports heroes, some coaches, some players, and one an inspirational sports writer. And this is what I learned:
Bruce Basler was more than just a coach who stood at a blackboard and diagrammed plays with (Xs) and (Os). He modeled genuineness and gentleness in character. He fit like an old shoe with anyone who was lucky enough to have known him. He was a person's person who spent a good share of his break time at school, having coffee with the janitors in the furnace room just off the gymnasium. He played golf with former players and modeled for them what it was like to be humble and non-threatening. As a coach he chose not to yell at his players. He has said, "When you see men die in combat, losing a basketball game is not that big." Bruce served in the army in the Pacific theater during World War 11.
Bruce lived by the slogan that, "Self sacrifice and desire would overcome lack of size." While coaching Marine basketball in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, he built powerhouse teams, (one of which held number one ranking in the state, for three weeks,) while competing against schools with much larger enrollments. And he had fun with his players. He wowed them sinking free throws underhanded while blindfolded. He was inducted into the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches in 1983. He would easily be inducted into the Gentlemen's Hall of Fame.
John Sitek is a big guy with an easy-going disposition. The first words he said after he was presented with his Hall of Fame plaque was, "The first thing I want to do is thank my beautiful wife, Judy." A few sentences later he said, "Being hired by Marinette was the best thing that ever happened to me."
A Physical Education teacher and Driver Education teacher, John coached girls who won 13 conference titles and 3 state titles. His boys won 3 conference championships along with regional titles and a sectional championship. He coached 48 individual state champions and 5 all-state re-lay teams. He was inducted into the Wisconsin State Track and Field Hall of Fame. His hope, as a coach, was to have his kids say, "I did the best I could do today."
A U.S. Army vet, John was asked, after coaching for 40 seasons, "Why do you still coach?"
He answered, "Why do you still go fishing?"
People are still talking about Mike, "The Pied Piper of Coaching," when he taught at Garfield School. At recess and noon hour, he had tons of kids running around the city block that borders the school. Mike, who taught himself how to run so he could compete, and win, the 880-yard dash in competition at Marquette, Michigan's Bishop Baraga High School, went on to coach the most prolific group of runners Marinette has ever had.
For some reason, Mike could get kids to come to his house at 5:30 in the morning and head out for a run. His teams complemented their talent with hard work and would go on to win 19 girls conference titles. When he first started leading the high school runners, 17 gals turned out as Freshmen. All 17 were still running as Seniors. A number of his runners have won state honors.
The humble coach talks, not of his accomplishments, but about the parents who have been so supportive to him over the years. He talks with pride about a runner, Janet Weshphal, a state champion, who gave so much of herself in one race that she ran out of gas just before the finish and had to crawl across it. He turned her disappointment into a heroic act. He also talked, tongue in cheek, about his wife badgering him that, because of all his coaching road trips, he spent more nights in motels with his assistant coach, Jerry Brown, than he has with her.
Marine Girls State Track and Field Champs
Under the tutelage of Coaches like Sitek, Brown, and Leanes, the Marine Girls Track and Field teams became state champions from 1992 to 1994. Various track and field stars shined brightly for the marines. They have names like Janet and Jenni Westphal, Missy Oleson, Lisa Lemack, Niki Falkenberg, Erika Zellner, Suzi St. Claire, Jody Bolen, and Jackie McKenney, and so many more.
Many from those championship years, walked to the podium, introduced themselves, and mentioned their track specialty. When they left the podium many also approached their beloved coaches and gave them a hug.
Dan Messenger once was standing in the tunnel, waiting to go out onto the the field where the Wisconsin Badgers would be playing Ohio State. He realized that he was standing next to the legendary coach, Woody Hayes. Hayes looked at him and said, "Good morning son. Good luck today."
The name Messenger, will take up a lot of space on the Marine honor wall for Hall of Fame athletes. Jeff, Mike, and Dan Messenger, followed in the footsteps of their dad, Pete. The three boys all starred in Marinette sports and went on to play big ten ball, Jeff and Dan at Wisconsin, and Mike at Michigan State.
An outstanding Marinette High School athlete in both football and baseball, Dan rushed for 169 yard and scored two TDs in Marinette's win over Menominee during the M + M game his senior year. He was twice player of the year for the Marinette Legion baseball team. He played in the Legion All Star game at Milwaukee County Stadium and won Most Valuable Player honors.
Dan returned punts and started as a defensive back for the Badgers until a career ending knee injury erased his dreams of playing professional football.
Long before names like Basler, Kunesh, Messenger and Westphal became household names in Marinette, a man named Joe Kresky, class of 1925, starred for the gridiron Marines. Ironically, at 168 pounds, Joe was the heaviest player on the entire team. Known as a bruising fullback, he went on to start for the Wisconsin Badgers at both fullback and defensive lineman. He would follow his college exploits into the NFL, playing in 37 games for various teams.
Everyone who knows Jody Korch has some thought that defines him. Mine goes something like this. I was looking out my window one January morning when I saw Jody skiing down the river past my house. His dog, "Beer Breath," was running alongside him. Vapor was puffing out of Jody's mouth and his arms were working like a busy set of scissors. I walked out the door and watched the two ski down the river and out of sight. Jody's dog is now longer with him but, in a way, it is. Jody's e-mail starts with the word, "Beerbreath."
Those scissor-like strokes and puffs of vapor say a lot about the tenacious Jody. He is an all-energy guy who gave more than asked of him as a local sports personality. He has never taken the easy way out when writing a column or preparing the history of past athletes who enter the Hall of Fame. He is a gem.
The mild-mannered Jody personifies that image of an athlete who, because of his experiences in past athletics, becomes easier to work with in the world of work, is not afraid to compete, is attentive, and can accept constructive criticism without taking it personal. How about that?
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