The 1979 Beaver Dam prep football team had two goals: go undefeated and win a Little Ten Conference title.
If the Golden Beavers did that, many on the team believed they could win their first state football championship, just three years after the WIAA began sanctioning a postseason tournament for the sport. A 55-12 victory over Hartford in the regular-season finale completed both of the team’s initial goals, and set Beaver Dam on a path to its golden moment.
Ranked second in the state, the Beavers earned their first postseason bid and defeated La Crosse Central in the Division 2 semifinals and top-ranked Germantown for the state title in a 6-0 slugfest.
“The competition was high that year,” said Charlie McDonald, the coach of the 1979 team. “We were ready in November after playing some pretty good football teams during the year. That helps.”
Throughout the 1970s, McDonald built the Golden Beavers into a wrecking ball in the Little Ten Conference — they won six titles in the decade — by running the ball and fielding a suffocating defense.
The 1979 team relied on senior running backs Tim White, Jim Campbell and Barry Ganske. With such rushing prowess in the backfield behind him, senior quarterback Jim Braemer didn’t have to worry about throwing the football that much.
“It was definitely a three- or four-headed monster on any given night,” White said.
Big wins boost confidence
Braemer said the Golden Beavers didn’t know how good they were until after a 34-0 shutout over a tough Menasha team to begin the season.
“We really got confidence as the season went on,” said Braemer.
In McDonald’s mind, it was an 8-3 victory over conference rival Oconomowoc in Week 7 that cemented the Golden Beavers’ confidence.
If Beaver Dam was the top team in in Little Ten in the 1970s, then the Raccoons were a close second. They always seemed to give the Golden Beavers fits and 1979 was no different. By the end of the season, Oconomowoc and Beaver Dam were both undefeated at 6-0 entering their head-to-head clash and whichever team won would likely be conference champions.
“It was a very cold game,” White said. “It tested our toughness. I think we became a mentally and physically tough team after that Oconomowoc win at Homecoming. It was frigid outside.”
Two weeks later, Beaver Dam wrapped up its perfect regular season with the blowout victory over Hartford. What made the Golden Beavers especially proud was the defense bloodied the Orioles into submission.
Not only did White rush for a career-best 224 yards and five touchdowns to win the Little Ten Conference scoring title with 66 points — with 60 of them coming on his 10 TDs and six more coming on his three 2-point conversions — but Beaver Dam outrushed Hartford 393-105.
While the Beaver Dam offense rolled, the defense never let Hartford do much. The unit gave up two touchdowns, but stopped both 2-point conversions. The defense also forced three fumbles while senior defensive backs Mike Linde and Henry Quinlan both had drive-stopping interceptions in their own territory.
“We just got on a run and ended up burying them,” said senior defensive end Dan Yagodinski.
In the early years of the WIAA football playoffs, only four teams per division earned postseason berths. To extend their season, teams had to win a conference title and be ranked in the top four by the Associated Press and United Press International.
“Just to make the playoffs was impossible,” Braemer said. “When we got the call and we knew we made the playoffs, we were like, ‘Wow.’”
The Golden Beavers faced a pair of wishbone option offenses in the playoffs in Germantown and third-ranked La Crosse Central.
The defense was up to the task thanks to defensive coordinator George Gonnion. He used five down linemen and two linebackers. Then, according to Yagodinski, if an opposing offense found a weak spot in the defense, Gonnion would make the switch to his Raider defense (4-4 base).
“George Gonnion was a very good defensive coach,” Yagodinski said. “He understood what needed to be done and when to pull the trigger if we needed to make the change to the 4-4 defense.”
First up was La Crosse Central in the state semifinals.
“They were four times the enrollment of us,” Yagodinski said. “But back then, they went by conference size and not by school size for what division you played in. They were a really good team. They were the only team that I can remember that took the opening kickoff and jammed it down our throats.”
The Red Raiders mounted a 71-yard scoring drive on their opening possession, but never scored again. The Golden Beavers tied the game at 7 early in the second quarter when White fell forward for a 1-yard touchdown run.
In the last minute heading into the break, Beaver Dam was driving with a chance to take the lead.
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Braemer remembered throwing to Linde for 44 yards with 12 seconds left. Then White caught a dump pass that put the Golden Beavers within range for Braemer’s 30-yard field goal — the team’s first field goal all season.
“I figured we were just going to go for the end zone,” Braemer said. “I remember the holder coming out from the sidelines with the black tee and I’m like, ‘What is going on?’
“I was the kicker that year and I don’t know how I won it. I think I was the only one who could get the ball consistently through the goalpost. I had never tried a field goal in my life. That was the first one ever. I’m like, ‘What is (Coach McDonald) thinking? I’m going to kick a field goal? OK.’”
Nerves went out the window once the Golden Beavers lined up and Braemer smashed it. “I probably could’ve made it from 50,” he said.
It gave the Golden Beavers a three-point lead and their defense shut out the Red Raiders the rest of the way to advance to the state title game.
“If I went personal things, (the field goal) would be right up there with the pass in the state championship game,” Braemer said of his favorite memories from that season. “Those two things really stand out.”
Germantown defeated fourth-ranked Burlington 28-14 in the other semifinal for a showdown with Beaver Dam in Oshkosh.
All season long, Braemer said the Golden Beavers heard glowing reports about Germantown quarterback Jerry Vance, who would later play defensive back at the University of Wisconsin, and the Warhawks’ high-powered running attack.
Vance rushed for 1,300 yards heading into the postseason, but only mustered 16 yards on 14 carries in the title game against Beaver Dam. In fact, Vance’s offense never got past the Beaver Dam 42-yard line the entire game.
“He didn’t want the ball,” Yagodinski said of Vance being beaten down by the Golden Beavers. “The defense was pretty dominant in that game.”
Winter weather during that game on Nov. 12 also played a part in Vance’s timidness. There had been a snowstorm the night before — dropping about four inches of snow that had to be removed from the Titan Stadium field — and the temperature at kickoff was 20 degrees.
“It was a cold, wet, frigid state championship game. It was definitely not Jerry Vance’s type of football,” White said. “It was Beaver Dam High School type of football.”
The Golden Beavers couldn’t get much done offensively either, but they scored all the points they needed on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Braemer to senior Tony Kohn to go up 6-0 with 2:09 left to play in the first quarter.
Braemer said he missed the extra point because of how heavy the ball felt.
“When I went to kick it, it went under the upright,” Braemer said. “The ball felt like a 50-pound medicine ball when you kicked it. It was that cold. My foot was froze.”
But Braemer’s miss didn’t come back to haunt Beaver Dam, because the team’s defense took care business.
“Luckily we scored one early on a pass because I don’t know if I could’ve thrown much more after that just because of how cold and terrible the field conditions were,” Braemer said.
“It was enough. Six was enough.”
Beaver Dam had a lot of talent that season and it showed when Linde and Yagodinski both earned all-state honors as defensive players, while White was an all-state running back.
In fact, between the 1979 and 1980 graduating classes, McDonald said almost a dozen players went on to play college football.
“It was a big number at that time,” McDonald said. “They just loved being together and they loved playing.”
Winning a state title didn’t just mean a lot to the players — it meant a lot to the community, too. It was the last WIAA team championship Beaver Dam could boast for 38 years, until 2017 when the Golden Beavers girls basketball team won the first of three straight Division 2 state crowns.
“This town was so cool,” Braemer said. “The day we won it and we came back that night, the whole town was out. It was crazy. When we came into town, if there were 12,000 people in this town, 9,000 were there. It was crazy.
“For years, I never paid for a pizza in this town. I’d go to a pizza place and I had free pizza. It was just a special thing.”