EagleHerald/Jody Korch  Marinette's state championship 1989 football team garnered plenty of headlines in the Marinette Eagle-Star.
EagleHerald/Jody Korch
Marinette's state championship 1989 football team garnered plenty of headlines in the Marinette Eagle-Star.

Editor’s note: The Marinette High School Athletic Hall of Fame will induct five new members and one team at a ceremony Saturday night at Little River Country Club. Tickets for the HOF banquet are on sale in the Marinette High School main office.

MARINETTE — Spectacularly unforgettable, the 1989 Marinette Marine football team had the ideal mix of brains, brawn, character and maturity.

The '89 Marines attained immortality with a Division 2 state championship. Marinette previously won four unofficial state titles, and the 1974 Marines could've beaten about anybody. But the '89 Marines are Marinette's only state champs since Wisconsin implemented football playoffs.

The team will be inducted into the Marinette High School Athletic Hall of Fame at an induction ceremony Saturday evening at Little River Country Club.

Joel Hanner, the head coach of the '89 Marines, says it all started with the entire MHS Class of 1990.

"Of all the years it just had a super group of kids in the class," Hanner said. "Not just boys, but girls. I'm talking about attitude, intelligence, character."

This was a Marine football team with 22 seniors.

"We had some good underclassmen," Marine assistant coach Tim Stauss said. "But that senior group, every single one of them knew how to lead. That didn't come from us. You had great character kids. I think that's a compliment to the parents. Good for the human race people, all of them."

Led by Wisconsin Player of the Year Jeff Messenger, the Marines outscored opponents 567 to 192. Messenger quarterbacked Marinette's unstoppable wishbone attack, which trampled opponents and seldom needed to pass. That season, Messenger rushed for 2,357 yards and 44 touchdowns. He played four years on varsity and accumulated 5,364 rushing yards and 79 TDs. 

But the '89 Marines were so much more than Messenger. With a couple of exceptions, the defense dominated. The offensive line paved gaping holes for Messenger, tailback Andy Cerrato and sophomore fullback Terry Brix. The receivers — Paul Stiglbauer and tight end Steve DeBriyn — were sure-handed.

DeBriyn remembers it like yesterday. Marinette opened its playoff run against Rhinelander in Antigo. Rhinelander was a tough, physical team that sold out to stop Messenger's running. With the game scoreless in the second quarter, Messenger faked a handoff to Brix.

"Pop veer pass," DeBriyn said of the play. "Rub off on the linebacker and head right to the back of the end zone goal post. I was either gonna be a hero or a zero."

He caught Messenger's pass for a game-changing 64-yard TD.

Cerrato — 1,346-yard rusher that season — caught a Messenger TD pass and rushed for one in Marinette's 24-7 win.

"A lot of people complained all year, 'you guys don't throw the ball,'" Hanner said. "Well, we didn't have to. Not in games. We worked all week (on passing) in practice, and I thought that was the key for us in the playoffs."

Marinette's 13-0 dream season opened with a 57-29 win over De Pere, but the Redbirds shredded the Marines for 300 passing yards.

"It felt like after the game we got beat because they scored (29) points," Hanner said. "We knew something was not right. After that game we went to work in practice and really emphasized what we did wrong."

Then it was a 42-20 win over a Pulaski team that threw caution to the wind and recovered two of its three onside kicks. Marinette trailed 20-6 in the second quarter but regrouped. Messenger scored five touchdowns and John Reinke returned an interception for a TD.

In a 58-12 win over Clintonville, Marinette had three 100-yard rushers — Messenger, Cerrato and backup Jedd Bradley. Tony Mayhew and DeBriyn blocked punts. Pat Konyn, Randy Nemetz and Sung Chang had interceptions.

Marinette trailed New London 13-12 in the third quarter when Messenger's 76-yard kickoff return turned the tide and the Marines went on to win 36-19.

In a 37-0 win amid cold, gale-force winds at Bay Port, Messenger had 233 rushing yards and four TDs. Pitches were out of the question in the wind so Messenger carried the load virtually by himself.

Marinette crushed West De Pere 59-8, then destroyed Shawano 64-0. In the win at Shawano, the Marines rushed for 628 yards, and Messenger sat out after the first play of the second quarter to let the subs in.

Then it was time for a first-place showdown with Bay Conference rival Ashwaubenon, which had allowed just 26 points in seven games. Marinette crushed the Jaguars 45-0. The Ashwaubenon coaches suspected the Marine coaches of stealing signals, but it was just great preparation.

"They didn't realize we broke them down so well by formation that we knew their plays," Hanner said.

In the regular-season finale, Messenger broke his league single-game rushing record with 330 yards in a 44-26 win over Seymour.

After beating Rhinelander, Marinette returned home to face Ashwaubenon, which was not routed in the rematch. Trailing 26-19, the Jags had a chance to tie in the final 1:30 when Nemetz intercepted a halfback option pass at his own 7-yard line.

In Marinette's 35-33 state semifinal win over Middleton, Mayhew recovered two fumbles in the second half. Middleton, which got 204 rushing yards and five touchdowns from fullback Matt Morris, was coached by Kurt Gundlach, who went on to coach the Marines in 2011 and 2012.

"It was a great matchup," Hanner said. "That should've probably been the championship game."

This was a loose and confident, not cocky, Marine team.

"I think the first and formost thing is they liked each other," Stauss said. "Team chemistry probably as good as you're going to find. Ungodly competitive. They'd be kind of loose in the lockerroom. Right after the National Anthem you could see it was like a light switch turned on them."

The state title game was a matchup of Marinette's speed and finesse vs. New Berlin Eisenhower's power on the fast Camp Randall Stadium turf. Marinette bolted out to a 43-0 third-quarter lead in a 43-19 win.

"One thing is we weren't that big of a team as far as body-wise, but we were fast," DeBriyn said. "Keep a pursuit angle. It was gang-tackling. Everybody wanted to tackle. I hate to say it, but we were mean back then. It was a team, and everybody wanted the same goal."

Hanner said the defensive linemen were so fast they could've been running backs.

This was a Marine team chock-full of unsung heroes. The offensive and defensive lines were comprised of outstanding students with high grade point averages.

"We were spoiled," Hanner said. "That's a once-in-a-lifetime group."

The offensive line — center Jon Hitt, guards Gene Hart and Casey Doyle and tackles Joe Veriha and Mark Collier — helped gash Bay Conference opponents for 403 yards per game. Running back Pat Konyn rarely carried the ball but was a devastating blocker. Hanner recalled that during postseason speaking engagements, Konyn would introduce himself as "blocking back and strong safety."

"Probably our most modest player was Konyn," Hanner said. "As long as you got him Dr. Pepper he was happy. The kid was a bigger asset on offense than he ever, ever thought he was."

The defense — led by first team all-conference players Keith Tremblay, Mayhew, Hitt and Messenger — limited opponents to 185 yards a game. Nemetz could have started at QB for any other team in the Bay, according to Hanner. On the '89 Marines he accepted his role as backup QB and starting defensive back. In the state title game he had an interception, took a pitch from Messenger and passed back to him for a 35-yard TD, and flipped a shovel pass to "Mess" for a two-point conversion.

The Marine coaches watched the Division 1 state title game, and felt the Marines could've beaten either of those teams.

"I think our whole staff felt we were the best team in the state, period," Stauss said.

And there was Marinette's living legend, manager Randy Kuhlman. He's still looking for the guy who doused him with water at Camp Randall after the title win.

On Saturday night, they'll relive the memories of one incredible Marine football team.

Hanner was an integral player on Northern Michigan University's national championship football team. "This championship with these kids stood above that, and I'm very sincere when I say that," Hanner said. "My goodness, they were so much fun."