Unbeaten STC team of 1971 gathers for 50th anniversary
Editor’s Note: This story was first written for the team’s 40th anniversary in 2011. It has been updated for the 50th anniversary.
Forty years ago this fall, 40 players and managers and their three coaches did something that no team before and no South Tama team since has accomplished. They completed an unbeaten season.
The record for most wins in a season was surpassed in 2007 when the Trojans were unbeaten in the regular season and made it all the way to the 3A championship game before losing and finishing 12-1.
The unbeaten season remains.
The team of 1971 also stands out because it was legendary South Tama Coach Jerry Ommen’s first season as a head coach. Ommen went on to coach other great teams, including a playoff team, but his first team was his only unbeaten team.
Coach Ommen had a staff of two, the late Ken Kolpin, who coached the offensive and defensive lines, and Les Koch, who coached linebackers and tight ends. Coach Ommen, a defensive back in his years at Westmar College, handled the offensive and defensive backs.
Coach Ommen served two years under Gary Hveem, who led South Tama to its first conference championship in 1969. In the fall of 1970, the Trojans missed a perfect record and a second straight title when they lost to Indianola in a rain-soaked game at Indianola. Coach Hveem headed to the college ranks and Coach Ommen took over with just 10 returning lettermen and two returning starters.
That doesn’t mean the cupboard was bare, just a little untested.
“Everybody thought we had a load of talent returning, but we were really inexperienced,” said Ommen, now retired after a career at STC as a teacher, coach and later vice principal. “As it turned out, we did have a tremendous amount of talent on the team, but more than that we had guys who had incredible work ethic. As coaches, we set it up for them, but they did the work.”
Returning was third team all-state tailback, Mark Fetter, who started at fullback and linebacker as a sophomore on the ’69 title team.
Ironically, the sophomore class struggled to a 4-4 record as the varsity won the title with an 8-1 mark. Fetter was moved up to the varsity and injuries decimated the team, including season-ending knee injuries to quarterback Jim Maplethorpe and offensive and defensive lineman Wally Carson.
Those sophomores turned juniors got a taste of a near championship season playing alongside a talented senior class that included Gary Zmolek, Larry Rinnan, Mike Savage, Steve Hala, Donnie Lane, Don Vest, Dick Duhacheck, Bob Flynn and Steve Posusta among others.
The 10 lettermen included Fetter at linebacker and tailback, Maplethorpe, a receiver, Rick Hand at linebacker, George Corum on the defensive line, Craig McCreary in the defensive backfield, Eric Lyon at defensive end, Carson at offensive guard, Les Zmolek, an offensive tackle, Gary Abbe, a defensive back and Dave Zmolek, a defensive lineman.
Forty players (all juniors and seniors) reported for pre-season captain’s practice at the Toledo Heights Park. It was a blistering hot August and under the leadership of Captains Fetter and Carson, the team worked out on their own before coaches could be involved.
“These guys were really dedicated,” said Ommen. “There were a lot of farm boys and a lot of tough kids on the team. We started with really good talent, but it seems like they worked harder than just about any team I coached.”
If the players thought they were fit and ready for the coaches, they were mistaken. Ken Kolpin had arrived from northwest Iowa to join Ommen and Koch on the coaching staff. Koch, a former UNI lineman, was the biggest man on the field, towering over most of the players.
Kolpin wore black rimmed glasses and mutton chop sideburns and spoke in a low growl. Ommen brought an intensity and energy to the coaching staff that won both fear and respect from the team. If there was one thing the coaches agreed on it was conditioning and if you polled the players, to a man they would agree that games were easy compared to practices.
South Tama faced a brutal 3A-4A schedule as a relatively small 3A school. Their schedule opened with Des Moines East, a 4A team thought to be a top Metro contender. The Central Iowa Conference was made up of growing Des Moines suburban schools Ankeny, Urbandale and Southeast Polk, football giant Indianola, Boone, Saydel, Grinnell and South Tama. Knoxville was the final team on the schedule.
Because of South Tama’s success in the prior two years, with third-team all-state Fetter back along with a number of lettermen, the Trojans were also ranked among the top 20 3A teams in the state.
“People forget how many seniors we lost off the 1970 team,” said Ommen. “We had no idea how we would do with mostly new guys.”
They opened the season with a mix of veterans, newcomer seniors and untested juniors in the starting line-up. On the offensive side of the ball, Maplethorpe was the quarterback, Hand was at fullback and Fetter at tailback. Junior Byron Wiese was the starting slotback with McCreary at split end and Lyon at tight end. The offensive line included seniors Dave Paxton at center, Wally Carson at guard, George Corum at tackle and Les Zmolek at tackle. The only junior on the line was Randy Olson at guard.
Defensively Fetter and Hand were linebackers in the 6-2 set, Olson and Lyon the defensive ends, Les Zmolek and Corum at tackles and Carson and Dave Zmolek at guards. McCreary and juniors Wiese and Mark Rutledge were in the defensive backfield. Foreman place-kicked and Maplethorpe punted.
“Mark Fetter was a special player,” said Ommen. “In two or three steps he was running wide open. He was as quick a player as I ever coached and could cover sideline to sideline defensively.
“Pound for pound, Rick Hand was as tough as they come,” said Ommen. “So was Carson. I tell you, he was only 170 pounds playing on the offensive and defensive lines. About every guy on the line was like Carson and Corum, extremely quick off the ball. When you have a team that could gain six to 10 yards every play running, we didn’t pass as much as we probably could have. Maplethorpe was a smart, talented quarterback and we had all kinds of guys who could catch the ball.”
What would make South Tama so strong as the season wore on were the reserves that would step in. Foreman eventually found starting time on the interior defensive line and Randy Nekola had quality time at defensive end. Seniors Gary Abbe (quarterback/defensive back), Ron Hill (defensive line), Rutledge playing behind Fetter at tailback and junior Stan Zeutenhorst at split end and defensive back all made significant contributions. In many games, reserves would play most of the fourth quarter.
Injuries cost some of the team’s best players (Fetter, Maplethorpe and Hand) full games and limited the play of others like Corum who played on despite a painful hip-pointer and Lyon who sprained an ankle midway through the season.
The team traveled to Des Moines East for its first game and slugged out a 7-0 victory over a team that the Des Moines Register had predicted as one of the top 4A teams in the Metro.
Against Boone the Trojans had their first home game and responded with a 34-7 victory. Saydel had scouted the Trojans well and used a 240-pound nose tackle to jam up the team’s highly effective trapping offense. A classic quote from Coach Ommen in his weekly “Coaches Corner” in the Tama News-Herald said “Saydel definitely came to play while South Tama became absorbed in their news clippings with their heads in the clouds.” Ouch!
“Of all the teams we played that year,” said Ommen. “Saydel gave us the most trouble. People think of them as sort of the doormat of the old CIC, but they played us tough.”
Ommen’s tough love approach to the game worked as the team crushed a highly ranked, and enormous Grinnell team 39-7. The Grinnell coach admitted to a Marshalltown Times-Republican sportswriter that South Tama’s small, quick offensive and defensive linemen “beat his players to death.”
Two top-10 ranked 3A teams met at Ankeny in the fifth game of the season and it proved a costly victory for the Trojans. Maplethorpe sustained a bruised kidney and Fetter separated his shoulder. Maplethorpe didn’t miss a snap and directed the team on a long, fourth-quarter drive to win the game.
A battered Trojan team met Urbandale at home the next Friday without the services of their starting quarterback and all-state tailback. Gary Abbe stepped in at quarterback and played brilliantly. Rick Hand ran up the middle off the trap blocks of Carson, Olson and Paxton for 100 yards and Mark Rutledge and Byron Wiese let the entire conference know that the Trojans did not have a one-dimensional offense.
It was the defense, however, that drove the spike in Urbandale’s heart with two interceptions returned for touchdowns. “We were good defensively because our guys were disciplined about doing their jobs, particularly a long the line,” said Ommen. “Our linebackers made a lot of tackles, but it was because guys like Lyon and Olson at ends, Corum and Foreman at tackles and Carson and the Zmolek boys were doing what they were supposed to do.”
The next game was at home as well and would be a rematch of the prior year’s CIC title bout. Indianola entered the game with the longest winning streak in the state, 34 games. A crowd estimated at over 5,000 packed the old Tama field. The game was close until near the end of the half when the lights on the east side of the field went out. Time was called, officials and coaches agreed to play on in the semi-darkness and Maplethorpe threw the first pass after play resumed to a streaking Wiese down the east sidelines for the only score of the first half. Fetter would rush for 129 yards with a bum shoulder and STC won 29-7.
“The play I’ll never forget was a punt early in the third quarter,” recalled Ommen. “We were yelling at Fetter to let the ball roll into the endzone, he picked it up at the 10, ran into Mark Rutledge (who sustained a mild concussion from the blow), spun around and ran 90 yards for the touchdown. It was the beginning of the end of Indianola.”
The next week the Associated Press had the Trojans ranked fourth in the state – a poll that included all classes – behind Waterloo East, Des Moines Dowling and Sioux City Heelan, all 4A teams.
The final two games were wipeouts as the Trojans rolled to an unbeaten year. The team beat Southeast Polk 46-0 in a driving rain on an absolute field of slop. The next week in freezing cold they demolished Knoxville 48-0.
The season ended with South Tama ranked fourth by AP among all classes and second in a Des Moines Register 3A poll to Cedar Rapids Regis (8-1) a fact that still rankles former players. “It was a year before the playoff system,” said Coach Ommen. “I’m pretty sure if you asked any of the guys, they’d tell you we would have won the title.”
Post-season honors followed. Fetter would be named first team all-conference, first team all-state and high school All-American. Maplethorpe, Corum, Lyon, Carson and Wiese were all first team all-conference picks by the Register. McCreary and Paxton were second team all-conference. On another all-conference team, Corum, Carson, Maplethorpe and Fetter first first team offensive players, Lyon, Foreman, Hand and Wiese were first team defensive players and Abbe, Rutledge, McCreary, Paxton, Dave Zmolek, Les Zmolek, Olson and Zeutenhorst received honorable mention. Most of the first team all-conference players received all-state honorable mention.
The team was wined and dined following the season as universities across the nation recruited Fetter. The entire team attended an Iowa game and ate in the Amana Colonies following the game. Both ISU’s Johnny Majors and Iowa’s Frank Lauterbach, spoke at banquets held for the team.
Fetter wound up at Iowa and was a four-year starter in the offensive backfield, later played for the Green Bay Packers and in Europe and was inducted two years ago into the Iowa High School Football Hall of Fame. Corum headed to Cornell College and became a three-time first team all Midwest Conference tackle and linebacker for the Rams. Maplethorpe and Carson both played at Luther College.
There were other players who could have played at the collegiate level but for one fact. The team remains one of the smallest teams in school history, with their biggest player weighing around 205 and the offensive and defensive starters on the line averaged just over 180 pounds.
The late Dr. Charles Maplethorpe, Jr., Jim’s father, kept the legend of the team alive, gathering up all of the old 16mm film and making it into VCRs for players on the team. Many of the teammates gather at five-year reunions of the classes of 1972 and 1973 and after spinning up on spouses, children and grandchildren, the unbeaten season is always revisited.
At an AAU volleyball tournament a few years ago, Les Zmolek was watching his granddaughter play, her dad, a member of the 12-1 STC team in attendance. Les ran into Dave Paxton, watching his granddaughter in the same tournament and the two started to reminisce. “Only unbeaten team in STC history,” said Les, eyeing his son-in-law. “Here we go,” his son-in-law replied. And so it goes.
Teammates and their coaches will gather at South Tama’s home game Friday, Sept. 17 to remember again, 50 years after an unbeaten season.
Dave Paxton is the publisher emeritus of newspapers in Albia and Chariton and was a senior on the 1971 Trojan team.