Thole: Stillwater’s team of destiny — and the spirit of ’75

Next to Ponies coach George Thole, captains Al Schmidt, left, and Mike Nolan, far right, present Stillwater High School principal Dr. Jon Swenson with the championship trophies at a welcome home pep fest in 1975.

It seems like yesterday when the 1975 Ponies football team (12-0) upset No. 1-ranked Richfield 20-17 before an overflow crowd (14,600) at Parade Stadium in Minneapolis. That was a year and a night that I will always remember because it validated the program that we introduced in 1971.

Well, it wasn’t yesterday. In fact, it was 37 years ago but it’s still fresh in the minds of the players, staff and fans because it resonated with the Twin Cities media and dear old SHS enjoyed elevated coverage.


Coaches George Thole, left, and Jerry Foley, right, display conference and Suburban playoff hardware while surrounded by players, including front, from left, Dave Trent and John Uppgren.

Many firsts occurred that season as locals won the first Suburban title in 22 years, the first-ever state grid title, first-ever parade through ISD 834, huge banquet at the Lowell Inn with the Minnesota Vikings and the first time in the history of the territory that a mayor (David “Choc” Junker) called off school to celebrate a football victory.

My staff that year consisted of the sage Jerry Foley, Denny Meyer, Steve Forseth, Donn Drommerhausen and Sam Miller, trainer Gene “Taco” Bealka, my boss AD Connie Knoche and physicians Dr. Paul Quinn and Dr. Bob Meisterling.

Even though we were undefeated, it wasn’t as easy as it looked. We beat Henry Sibley 21-20 in the first overtime game in school history when Danish exchange student Soren Gam kicked the winning PAT and the players carried him off the field — he didn’t have a clue what happened. Neither did our fans as we showered before they left the stadium.

After crushing Hastings 41-6 and Woodbury 44-0, we ran into a buzz saw at White Bear Lake. Lucky for us, Matt Eastwood intercepted a pass and ran 18 yards for a TD on the first play of the game and we held on for a 7-0 win.

A week later, Perry Montpetit intercepted two passes and Joe Eichten returned a punt 66 yards for the winning TD in a 14-7 win over Tartan. Next came a 7-6 white-knuckler over North St. Paul when Mike Nolan hit Bobby de St. Aubin on a 66-yard pass that set up the winning score. The Polars went for two after they scored, but were stopped short by Buck Beutel, Tim Kumerow, Dave Rogers, Mark Nelson and company.

In the playoffs, we rolled over Kellogg 35-14 — with solid games by Eastwood, Al Schmidt and Jeff Rosell and Mark Schultz — and Harding 31-7 behind the solid running of Terry Richert (Mr. Inside) and Todd Butterfield (Mr. Outside). We had small, but effective linement with the likes of Dave Schad, Brian Sandager, Dave Trent, Paul Nord and Tom Peterson.

The stage was set for the showdown with the Richfield Spartans. Following is the account provided by the Pony Express:


Week 12

Stillwater 20, Richfield 17

In one of the greatest championship games in history, the Ponies overcame a 7-0 first-half deficit to take the lead 13-7 early in the fourth quarter. Richfield came right back with a 56-yard TD pass and then added a field goal to take the lead 17-13 with 3:41 remaining in the game. Nolan led the Ponies on a 77-yard drive highlighted by a quick pass to de St. Aubin, who raced 26 yards to the Richfield 5. After two running plays and a pass attempt fell short, the Ponies faced a fourth-and-goal from the 6 with 18 seconds on the clock. On their final try, Butterfield found de St. Aubin on a halfback option pass in the end zone for a score and the win.


Me again — on the ride home, we were escorted by a huge car contingent of fans and police. The biggest thrill for the players was running all the red lights, led by Stillwater’s finest. Who could forget the big white sign with red lettering that said: “Russia’s not the only one with a Big Red Army”. Hundreds of adoring fans lined up on Hwy. 36.

Gazette sportswriter Jim McLaughlin had a field day with stories and pictures galore — and we enjoyed the letters to the editor through the holidays that praised the team’s efforts, and nice tributes from Maple Manor and VFW Post 323 were among the many.

Thanks for letting me remember this special time in my career. Back in 1975, Nolan quoted d-back John Uppgren saying as a sophomore that as seniors the Ponies would go all the way. Nuff said.

The ’75 Ponies gridders, along with Walter Kress ’64, Jill (Junker) Stimson ’75, coach Don Campbell, Glenn Harris ’91, Kevin Klancher ”93 and Tanya Schuh Modelli ’93 will be this year’s inductees, plus 10 state championship synchronized swim teams. Also being honored will be the more recent state champion boys’ cross country (2011) and softball (2012) teams. The SCVAA Hall of Fame Banquet is Wednesday, Sept. 26. The doors open at 5:30 p.m., with social hour from 6-7 p.m., and the ceremony starting at 8 p.m. Cost is $30 per ticket.


Arnfelt named Northwestern captain

Former Ponies grid standout Brian Arnfelt of Lake Elmo and three others were voted captain for this year’s Northwestern University Wildcats football team. Arnfelt wears No. 91 and is a starting defensive tackle.

I checked out the Ponies scrimmage on Saturday and predict an 8-2 season, starting with a 21-7 victory tomorrow night at Woodbury.


In the huddle

The Ponies girls’ swim team flexed its muscle to win the SEC Relays for the umpteenth time. Kylie Burgess had the hat trick with victories in three relays. Burgess teamed with Abby Kunze, Sophie Barnes and Sophia Bisch in the 400 individual medley relay, the 800 freestyle relay with Claire Rutscher, Mary Knaak and Hannah Sneden and completed the trifecta with Kunze, Rutscher and Barnes in the 200 backstroke. The Ponies also won the 200 fly relay with Bisch, Knaak, Sammi Potts and Lauren Quickel…. Coach Phil Johnson (437-154-60) has his squad off to a 3-0 start and will be stepping down as honcho after 33 seasons. He has coached the locals to a pair of state titles among 15 trips to state. Johnson has led his Ponies to victory 71.6 percent of the time. The Big Red look tough again with the return of scoring ace Pat Roth, who scored 18 goals a year ago…. The Ponies boys’ cross country team led by aces Wayde Hall and Eric Colvin is expected to repeat as state champion…. Don’t tread on me, because I deserve better…. Finis


Today’s rumination #581

Always remember, you are unique — just like everyone else.

• • • •

George Thole retired as head football coach at Stillwater after the 1999 season. He ranks among Minnesota’s top coaches in history with a 285-69-2 record (.805 winning percentage), including four state titles and two state runner-up finishes among 22 championship seasons. He co-authored (with Jerry Foley) “Coaching the Veer Offense,” second edition. His column appears Thursdays in the Gazette. To contact the hall of fame coach e-mail: [email protected]

Richfield all-state quarterback Joe Smith gets stopped by Ponies Jeff Radke (77) and Joe Eichten (20) during the state championship game.

    Hi George,

    A great column, once again, about the greatest high school football game I ever witnessed in person, and still one of my greatest sports thrills in 68 plus years on this planet. I have been a Stillwater Pony diehard ever since Bayport’s own, Mike Quinlan, took me to my first Pony basketball game when he was a senior basketball star at SHS (and football, baseball, and I think track star). Mike went on to be a football star and Captain of his Air Force Academy football team which played in The Cotton Bowl around 1960.

    I remember that it had snowed in the days before the game, the field was half frozen, and it was very difficult to maneuver my wheelchair along the sidelines becomes of all the ice and snow piled alongside the field. I have never been so cold in my life, and probably never again will I be as thrilled as that night when our beloved Ponies were shoved all over the field in the first half by the mighty Richfield Spartans, but only trailed 7-0 at the half. I don’t know what you said in the locker room at halftime, but Stillwater came out in the second half and overwhelmed the stunned Spartans to take the lead, only to see the Spartans regain the lead with under four minutes to go. What ensued was one of the guttiest last-minute drives I have ever witnessed. I remember you saying afterward that the Todd Butterfield to Bobby de St.Aubin winning halfback pass had not worked all season. I don’t know if that is true or not. It didn’t matter that night, because it did work when it was needed.

    I remember how overjoyed my uncle Wilfred Poirier was because he had waited all of his life for this moment and his nephew, Tom Peterson, was a starting lineman for the Ponies that night. I will never forget your joyful on camera interview immediately after the game with Ralph Jon Fritz of Channel 4 TV when you came up with one of the greatest quotes of all time in praising the incredible efforts of your young athletes. You stated, “They Were Tougher Than Carp!” That statement has always defined toughness for me forever thereafter. GO PONIES!!

  • Nile Kriesel

    As you know Coach, it was the greatest Ponies game that I never saw! :-(


  • Michael Laabs SAHS class of 1981

    Great article Mr. Thole!