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Thirty years in the making

Dakota Wesleyan football player Tanner Tucker is used to his parents, Brad and Connie, being in attendance at all of his athletic endeavors -- scrimmages included.

Dakota Wesleyan football player Tanner Tucker is used to his parents, Brad and Connie, being in attendance at all of his athletic endeavors -- scrimmages included.

So when the Tigers hold their first real scrimmage of the season today at the DWU practice field, it won't be anything new for the 6-foot-5, 230-pound tight end to see his parents in attendance.

What will be a little out of the ordinary for the Rapid City Central graduate will be the hoards of Tucker's father's buddies, all of whom played with Brad on the 1976 DWU conference co-champion football team, that also will be at the game.

Members of that team will be holding their first-ever reunion in conjunction with the 30-year anniversary of their 1976 conference co-title this weekend on DWU's campus, starting this morning by attending the 9:30 a.m. scrimmage. The team also will take a tour of the campus, have a golf outing at Wild Oak Golf Course and follow up the evening with a supper and banquet. There also will be a worship service held Sunday morning to round out the weekend's festivities.

"I think it's awesome," said Tanner Tucker, who likely will be the team's starting tight end this season. "It really shows how we want to keep the tradition going. It's awesome that those guys get to see what the school has turned into and what the football program is going to be like this year. It's nice for them to get to see something they haven't seen in quite a while."

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Thirty-one years of frustration

In the 31 years that book ended the Tigers' conference titles, the team finished the year with a winning record just eight times, which includes the team's 8-2 mark during the 1976 season and a 6-3 mark in 1974, which would have been the sophomore year for the class of 1976-77.

So when the team started the year off 5-0 in '76, and eventually knocked off main rival Dakota State with just three games left in the season to lock up a share of the title, it was a major happening at the campus.

"We had the whole day of school off the next day -- the whole college," said Flandreau native Randy Oldenkamp, who was a sophomore tight end/linebacker on the team, and now resides in Mitchell.

While the conference title obviously was a big deal, most of the members of the team said they were oblivious to the magnitude of the accomplishment until the title was in-hand.

"I guess I was just more concerned with trying to contribute any way I could," said then-freshman Kent Mueller, a Freeman native and current head football coach at West Central. "I understood that as the season went on, we certainly were in a position to win the conference championship. But as a freshman coming in, that was all pretty heady stuff. I was certainly more worried about fitting in and trying to contribute any way I could."

The Tigers, who had been ranked as high as No. 2 in the NAIA polls that year, followed up the win at then-No. 7 Dakota State with a loss to Yankton College the following week which basically ended their hopes at a postseason berth.

But the share of the SDIC title and the team's best record in its then 90-year history was a lock.

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'A bunch of young punks'

Mueller wasn't the only player unaware of the pressures of grasping at a conference title. With just 38 players on the roster to begin with, 12 were freshman, all of which lettered and most started at one time or another.

"A big part of it was we had a bunch of young kids that really didn't understand what was going on," said Brad Tucker, a freshman that year as well. "Sometimes when you know it's there and think about it, it tends to allow pressure to build and sometimes that pressure gets to you. We were a bunch of young punks who didn't know what pressure was. There's something to be said about that."

While it was far from a senior-dominated team, both Tucker and Mueller said the seniors that were there were vital.

"We had outstanding senior leadership," Mueller said. "They were guys who had been very close before and this was kind of their last opportunity to leave their mark. I think those guys deserve the credit and recognition. They got some help, but ultimately that burden fell on them.

"The seniors that played had a huge impact on the team."

Eleven seniors were on the roster in 1976, five of which were constants. Quarterback Steve Mach and linebacker Mike Flyger both earned first-team all-South Dakota Intercollegiate Conference mention as seniors that year, as did underclassmen Jeremy Voas on the offensive line, Steve Oster at wing back, Dan French on the defensive line and Don Hilton at defensive back. Seniors Lon Andersen, Ron Ehresmann and Kevin Storm and underclassmen Kirby Sweeney and Oldenkamp all also received honorable mention all-SDIC honors.

Mach set the new single-season passing record with 1,340 yards and Ehresmann set the school's all-time leading rushing mark for a career, finishing out with 2,868 yards. They were joined by other senior regulars Flyger, running back Cregg Else and Andersen, the linebacker, to provide a solid senior nucleus.

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"Those five players gave us outstanding senior leadership, as did our other seniors," said then-head coach Ron Parks in a Daily Republic article that ran on Dec. 30, 1976, after the Tigers were named the Team of the Year by the South Dakota Sportswriters Association. "The key to almost every successful team is the leadership it receives from its seniors, and we were extremely fortunate in that area."

Love for the team

While the team's freshmen are quick to praise the seniors, the seniors are equally fast to credit the new guys, most of whom dotted the starting lineup throughout the year. In fact, it was Mueller who got a late interception at Madison to lock away the Tigers' 26-22 victory and co-SDIC title.

"We had a thing that year -- we had great team chemistry," said Flyger, who lives in Sioux Falls. "We had gone through some years where it was kind of tough, but we hung in there that year and had some good leadership. And our freshmen were just huge that year. It seemed like every one of them contributed like they were upperclassmen.

"We had good coaching, too. Ron Parks, he could put together some really good offensive plays and, of course, (assistant coach) Gordie Fosness was a great motivator. We just jelled well that year."

The team's eight wins that season are second-best only to the Tigers' 10-1 season in 1991. It also would be another 11 seasons before the Tigers would come back and win another SDIC title, which they did in 1987, 1989, 1991, 1992 and 1994 under Joe Kramer. In fact, the Tigers had just one more winning season between 1976 and 1987 and that came in 1978 under Tom Long when DWU went 5-4-1.

"They had great leadership," said Parks, now a teacher and junior high football coach in Mitchell whose last year with the team was 1977. "Every team has to come up with that. I think there was decent leadership after that, but there wasn't the meshing together of the team.

"One of the captains made a comment at the end of the season at the end-of-the-year banquet and said that the reason we came together is because of love," Parks continued, talking about Flyger. "It's not a captain that you would really think would come out with that at that time in his life."

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