Sept. 12, 2019
By Scott Williams
MOSINEE – Kevin Grundy arrived at the postgame huddle to a kneeling group of players with radiant smiles from ear to ear in the north end zone at Veterans Park.
After an enthusiastic and well-earned congratulatory message, the Wausau East football coach quickly offered a stern reminder to his players.
Grundy noticed some poor body language and muttering of discontent from players on the sidelines during a thrilling 45-44 overtime win over Mosinee last Friday night.
His speech had nothing to do with Xs and Os or effort. No. His message hit deep at the core of what the 2019 season is all about for the Lumberjacks.
“It’s all about the we and not the me,” said Grundy, who wanted to nip any sign of discontent or selfishness before it festered. “It’s about making sacrifices.”
The Lumberjacks have embraced the unifying mantra ‘WE Strong’ this season.
In its simplest terms, that means doing the right things on and off the football field with one common goal in mind – success.
Players have set aside personal agendas and placed the team above everything else. Their only concern is what can they do to help the team. Any individual agenda is left inside the locker room.
They’ve embraced the importance of being accountable to each other and the coaches.
“‘WE Strong’ is about being a family,” East senior linebacker Eli Glaser said. “Coach Grundy always says if we have differences with people on the team, when it comes to the football team, we all have to come together and stand behind one another.
“You have to respect the person and respect each other.”
Something as simple as making sure every single player shows up for practice on time, or adheres to curfews, is paramount to the principles of the mantra.
So far, so good. East is off to its best start since 2004 – the last time the program opened a season 3-0 – with wins over Merrill, Southern Door and Mosinee.
But the adage runs much deeper than the football field. ‘WE Strong’ carries over to the classroom and family.
That means going to class in order to remain eligible all season. Or being respectable to their parents and siblings when they get home.
There is no gray area or fudging when it comes to holding true to WE Strong.
“We have to keep our grades up. We have to focus on school and focus on family. Then we can focus on football,” Lumberjacks senior quarterback Matt Heinrich said. “We have to be smart on the weekends. We have to get home on time and do all the stuff to stay on the right path.
“All of those things will help build the team and make us better.”
‘WE Strong’ has manifested itself in a variety of ways through the first three games.
For the first time the Lumberjacks faced adversity. Four consecutive turnovers turned a 28-7 advantage for East in the opening half into a 31-28 deficit in the third quarter.
Frustration started to build. There was small skirmish late in the first half that resulted in unsportsmanlike penalties on both teams.
Late in regulation, Lumberjacks’ linebacker Jack Napgezek needed to calm down Sam Buntrock who felt he was being held every play and let his anger spill over.
After the initial dust up with Mosinee players that led to pushing and shoving, Glaser gathered members of the defense together for a ‘WE Strong’ moment.
“I wanted to keep everyone focused and make sure everyone remembered what our objective is out there and what we have to do,” Glaser said. “On the field, it’s really important to keep your poise. When it’s a really close game, we have to stay competitive and to do that you have to keep your composure and poise.”
It’s all part of the culture Grundy has attempted to instill in a program where winning seasons are few and far between.
The coach insists it all starts on a personal level. The players need to believe you have their best interests at heart before they can trust you know what you’re talking about.
Mission accomplished in year 2 of the Grundy Reclamation Project.
“When you teach, and when you coach, I think the biggest thing is building relationships,” said Grundy, who formerly coached across town at Wausau West. “When you build positive relationships, and keep things positive, you start caring about one another.
“People don’t care how much you know until they see how much you care.”
There is no mystery behind East’s hot start.
The defense has been rock solid. It held Merrill and Southern Door to a combined 13 points in Weeks 1 and 2.
Mosinee’s pass-happy attack, led by the accurate arm of quarterback Trey Fitzgerald, put the Lumberjacks on their heels for the first time last week.
No problem. The East offense had their backs thanks to stud running back Donovan Leverette and a dominant offensive line that makes Leverette’s life awful easy.
Leverette has been unstoppable. He rushed for 304 yards and four touchdowns against the Indians. For the season, the senior halfback has racked up 758 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging an eye-opening 11.3 yards a carry.
None of that would be possible without the quintet of linemen Owen Coulson, Jarvis Cobbs, Ethan Forbes, Owen Beasley and Reece Ament taking care of business in front of Leverette.
“Seeing Donnie do his thing, running people over, hit the holes hard and stay on his feet, it’s really cool to see,” Heinrich said. “But there’s more to that. The line has a lot to do with that. They’re making their blocks and are doing a lot for Donnie to be able to do his thing.”
While the fast start is nice, no one has to tell East that nothing has been accomplished yet.
The goal of a playoff berth is just a possibility not a guarantee. There is a lot of work to still be done in order to make that a reality.
How will the Lumberjacks handle the lovefest and all the attention that comes with success?
An answer could come Friday when East travels to unbeaten Rhinelander (3-0) for a 7 p.m. kickoff. The Hodags have allowed a total of 13 points.
“We have to stay ‘WE Strong.’ Once we win one week, we need to forget about that week and move ahead,” Heinrich said. “Like coach Grundy says after every practice, ‘We have to look at every team we play as the reigning Super Bowl champs.’ That keeps our heads focused on the next week and it helps a lot.”