ATLANTIC – The group of seniors on the 2002 state championship team for Atlantic High School had been playing together as a team since elementary school.
Fueled with a desire to pick up where they fell short during the 2001 season, the then seniors returned with a “fire in their belly”, describes Kelly Muller. “I think the previous year’s success paved the way to give us confidence in addition to our team’s cohesiveness, it was a recipe for success”, shared Dustin Schelling as he reflected on his pre-2002 season thoughts.
Friday night, the Atlantic High School state football championship Team of 2002 will be honored at the home game against Ballard. But first, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane.
It was a true honor for me to step back in time and catch up with team captains Kelly Muller, Bret Meyer, Tom Schmelling and Nick Ross, as well as teammate Dustin Schelling in preparation for this feature article.
As a varsity cheerleader during my high school years, the season they as a team, and we as school and community chased that state championship title, is one of my fondest memories! I mean — where else would I have had the chance to perfect my chocolate chip cookie recipe before I turned 18!
Staring down their scheduled opponents for the season, the 2002 team unanimously had one thing on their mind — finishing what they started the year prior. The class of 2001 graduated an incredible group of dynamic athletes, all who were noted as strong contributors to the success of the 2002 team.
“We felt like we came up short the year before, when we had just as much talent on that team as we had on the 2002 team. Anything short of a state championship would have, in my opinion, been a shortfall. We wanted that state win for the upperclassman who (pushed us to where we were), for our coaches, our parents, our community, and ourselves!” Kelly Muller comments on both those teammates that prepared them and the overall mentality walking into that season.
Muller recalls the team motto that year was appropriately “Unfinished Business.” Accompanying that motto that was equally a mindset was this saying on the back of their team shirts, “They don’t give you championships for beating someone, they give you championships for beating everyone!”
And that they did. But what I learned while catching up with these gentlemen was that so much of what was won that year (and the culminating years prior), cannot be displayed in a trophy case.
Under the direction of a dynamic coaching staff made up of head coach Gaylord Schelling and assistant coaches Mike McDermott, Lee Saathoff, Josh Rasmussen, Gene Schmelling, Shawn Peterson, Paul McKay and the late Dick Krambeck, the coaches stood before a team that was athletic, hardworking, determined, and passionate. Coach Schelling noted that within that 2002 team, he had 23 seniors, with only Kelly Muller playing on both sides of the ball.
“Practices were extremely physical and often very heated. Coach McKay would often pad up and run plays as both a running back and nose guard on defense.” Schelling also notes the tight-knit closeness of that group of men on the field both with one another and with the young men under their direction.
To have gone to high school during this era of coaching staff and/or to have been coached by them was to know these men loved what they did and cared deeply about each player willing to suit up and wear the Trojan Head on their uniform.
When I asked these five former AHS players to share what was going through their head as they approached the 2002 football season, “High expectations” was a common response from teammates Muller, Meyer, Schmelling, Schelling, and Ross. All agreed there was one goal in mine — the state title.
“You know, we knew we were good, we were expected to be good given the season we just had and what lay ahead of us as we looked towards that 2002 season. We were a good team but how good could we be? That was the question one everyone’s mind, all eyes on the Dome…,” stated former varsity head football coach Gaylord Schelling when asked to think about approaching that history-making football season, now 20 years ago.
“We were more talented than any team we (would play that year) and we knew it. It was (going to come down to) us and how well we executed the game plan. If we played well and limited our mistakes, we knew we would win!” shared Bret Meyer.
There is no shortage of magical moments or exciting games as you look back on that season. But how does one begin to select what to remember or focus on?
We could take the Creston game. Both teams meet up with an undefeated status, both knowing one of them is leaving that night, no longer able to claim that coveted phrase. The Trojans converted on fourth-and-8 to take down the undefeated Panthers. Walking away one step closer to that state title.
And then we have the Harlan game. Oh the Harlan game!! Were you there? Do you remember the rush of emotion as the entire stadium stormed the field after a huge field goal kick from Chris Carsens and a game winning turnover forced by Andy Green and Sean O’Brien? I can still feel the atmosphere at the Trojan Bowl that night. “Beating Harlan was significant for us and the program. “...the crowd was electric that night, you cannot forget how that felt!,” said Nick Ross, a linebacker for the state champions
Dustin Schelling notes, “We knew we were a great team leading up to the Harlan game, but didn’t know if we could get over the powerhouse of District 8 after so many years. Beating Harlan gave us the confidence we could beat anyone. The way that game ended, I felt we were destined to win it all going forward!”
And then there is the Pella game. The game that brought us a score of 14-0, Pella, going into the fourth quarter. Coach Schelling shared that at half-time the coaches rallied, made a plan and then made the plan known. “If we were going to leave with a W, we have to go out there and score twice and successfully complete one two-point conversion! It was the only way!”
“I thought my dad and coaching staff were crazy, going for two and putting the season on the line like that,” shared Dustin Schelling. “But, with our O-line and Kelly Muller leading the way for Bret, it wasn’t that crazy in hindsight!”
“It felt awesome,” states Bret Meyer, “We just kept playing and in the end we had just enough time. I remember sitting outside the locker room on the steps with Morgan Schuler just shaking our heads trying to figure out what just happened!”
Rumor has it after the Pella game upon the Schellings arrival home, an unnamed eight-man coach left a message on their answering machine (remember those) and asked if Coach Schelling wanted to be the latest model for a Hanes underwear commercial after that little stunt he pulled in Pella. Source (one of his sons) to remain anonymous!
Or we can talk about when Tom Schmelling hurt his knee in practice ahead of the championship game and was forced by that injury to support his teammates from the sidelines. The hurt of that perhaps only softened by the fact that, “Getting to share these memories with my Dad and having him be my coach and experience this right alongside me, was a definite highlight! When the final seconds ticked off the clock in the Uni-Dome, he was the first one to grab me and celebrate!”Schmelling shared.
And yes, the best in the state is a title that was given and cannot be taken from the team of 2002, from the coaches, from our district, the parents and fans supporting them along the way. Rightfully so! They fought and defended and won every game that year – all the way to the end.
But there is more that was won during that season and all those years working together and yearning for the same goal as a team. A type of championship that also cannot be taken away from someone. The kind that changes who you are on the inside. Those character shaping moments that stay with you. I think Nick Ross states it just exactly the way all these players feel about that season and still feel about one another.
“I feel like our group was extremely fortunate to have tremendous support from our parents, community, and coaches,” said Ross. “A championship team is not made overnight. We were developed over the years by all of the people that supported us. After being around football teams and programs every year since being out of high school, I have come to appreciate what a rare treat we were able to accomplish (as a team and with one another). I will cherish forever that we were able to win a state championship together”
To the 2002 State Championship Team, 20 years has gone so fast. Twenty years ago, you took us on a wild ride of win after continual win. We held our breath, closed our eyes, stormed the field, cried, laughed, cheered, and traveled all around the state — as you kept marching down the field and through your scheduled roster – until the final snap of the final game, a shutout victory against Mount Vernon with a 27-0 win.
The 2002 Varsity Football team from Atlantic High School did it! They were state champions. And with all the worthy accolades, trophies, fire trucks rides and celebrations that come with that, what they took away from that season goes deeper than a two-page spread in the News-Telegraph or the year book. It’s shown in their character as now grown men, husbands, fathers, coaches, principals, salesmen, uncles, neighbors, and as friends and former classmates of myself, willing to answer this new-to-sports reporters questions I had.
They gave us one heck of a ride that season. It’s one we won’t long forget and certainly don’t want to.
I asked each of them what they would say to their 2002 self, what they would say to the group of young men chasing a football win each week, and if they had anything else they’d like to say.
Unanimously each one wanted to thank the community, their supporters, coaches, parents, teammates and fans that year. Unanimously they all encouraged the youth of Atlantic to enjoy the blessing it is to grow up here. To work hard, fight for what you want, and to set your priorities and hold each other accountable for them.
I asked coach Schelling the same question, “What more would you want to add….” And in a moment of the tell-tale coach Schelling tears, he recalls the years of unwavering support from his bride, Bev. “Without her I couldn’t have done any of the coaching I have been blessed to be a part of. She stayed home raising babies, while I helped raise men on the field. (It) would have all been impossible without her, and for that I’ll forever be thankful.”
Thank you to the team from 2002. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Thank you for the reminder that in the midst of two-a-day practices, and late night conditioning and Friday night football that which is being formed is more than successful football programs. I’d say at the end of it all, the kind of men these coaches are sending out into the world, is a tremendous victory to us all! State championship trophies don’t hurt either!