KIRKLAND – For some football teams, making a run in the playoffs is an expectation, and not doing so is a failure.
For Hiawatha, it’s the standard of excellence that has been set. The Hawks haven’t made the playoffs since 1987, mainly because of the odds mounted against them. It’s tough to find the talent pool necessary to succeed when the school has an enrollment of 156 and a reputation as one of the smaller schools in Class 1A.
There was even a movement in the late 1980s to consolidate Hiawatha and Genoa-Kingston, but it was shot down by the Hiawatha school board with a vote of 4-3.
Yet none of that mattered in 1987. A roster of 25 players came together under the leadership of Terry Jenkins to lead the team to success that Hiawatha has been trying to match for more than a quarter century.
“Some of the bigger schools, they could just pick and choose who they want to play where,” said Ron Nobles, a right tackle on the ’87 team. “We were just a bunch of little farm boys who usually played offense, defense and special teams.”
It didn’t really matter. Jenkins was a passionate coach, no matter what sport it was. While at Hiawatha, he also was the head boys basketball coach, and later he went on to be the head girls track coach at Polo High School.
When it came to football, he was an offensive guru. Each week, he would implement several plays specific to the team Hiawatha would be playing, with most of them going to star quarterback Terry Murphy.
Former assistant coach Terry Niedzwiecki remembers Jenkins as being all about tactics, but not a typical motivator.
“He didn’t do a lot of that in-your-face stuff,” Niedzwiecki said. “He just prepared his team as best he could, did a lot of scouting, and he was a passing-oriented kind of coach.”
As the season started, the team had a belief that it could make some noise on the gridiron, but it didn’t immediately translate to great fan support. Besides a playoff appearance in 1984, the Hawks had not had much recent success, so expectations were low.
That didn’t deter the players. They continually improved throughout the regular season, and when it became evident that the playoffs were a possibility, the community took notice.
“We might have started a little bit slow, and each game, we just got better and better,” Nobles said. “Towards the end of the season, there were a lot of fans in the stands.”
Hiawatha finished off its regular season 6-3 and qualified for the playoffs for the second tiem in four years. They would face off at home against Durand, a team that beat them earlier in the season and was expected to do it again.
But the Hawks had a little luck on their side. As one of the few teams without lights at their stadium, they played on Saturday afternoons rather than Friday nights. It was a subtle change that may have made a big difference.
“That’s a little different way to approach getting a team ready,” Niedzwiecki said, “and I think that might’ve given us a bit of an advantage.”
It didn’t help early, however. Durand jumped out to a quick lead, and the Bulldogs didn’t seem like they were going to relinquish it.
But in the fourth quarter, Hiawatha found life, and a late touchdown seized a 17-12 victory. It was a historic moment for the team, and even if the players had expected it, experience was a totally different story.
“Everybody was on cloud nine,” Nobles said. “We worked hard, we came together, and we earned it, so it felt great.”
The run was halted in the next round. Freeport Aquin came to Kirkland and won, 34-6, ending the Hawks’ dream season. That season would be Jenkins’ last as head coach. A rift with the school board led to his release later that season, and he moved on to Polo.
Whether or not it was the right decision depends on whom you ask, but there is no doubt that the football program at Hiawatha still looks back at the ‘87 season.
“It was a very exciting period of time for us in Kirkland because they never expected much from us in football,” Niedzwiecki said. “We had a great group of kids that came through there in ’87.”