‘Magic’ season highlights second half of 80s – Cardinal Football History Series

1987 All-Conference Cards – Front, from left, Bill Ransen, Ritchie Nelson. Row two, from left, Courtney Schmid, Kerry Wright, Jody Morgan, Mike Morris, John Becker. Back, from left, Pat Nissen, Bruce Gragert, Denny Johnson.


Joe Flanagan

“Ch-ch-ch-changes … turn and face the strange.”
For David Bowie, it was a hit song. For the Albion football program, it was the essence of the mid and late 1980s.
As Cardinal football moved into the second half of the 1980s, there were, indeed, major changes in the program, along with some strange times.
First, veteran coach Ron Laux announced in the summer following the 1984 season that he was leaving Albion for a position at Lexington High School in his home area. He would conclude his stellar coaching career by leading the Minutemen to three Class B state playoff finals.
Laux concluded his 12-year Albion tenure with a 59-50-3 record (correction of what appeared in the Cardinal Football Series installment in the May 20 edition of the Albion News). He coached the Cardinals to winning seasons in eight of his 12 seasons, winning the final Central 10 Conference championship game in 1975, leading the Albion program to its initial Nebraska State Playoff qualification (1981), and coaching Albion’s second playoff team and first playoff victory (1984).
Several weeks later, it was announced that Albion native and 1975 grad Terry Warner would take over the Cardinal program. Warner was a Central Conference All-West Division selection his senior year at Albion High School, competed in football and tennis at Hastings College, then coached at Elgin High School. He had a 27-14 record in five years at Elgin, including a conference and district championship in 1982. His Eagles were ranked sixth in eight-man football following the 1979 and 1982 seasons.
Unfortunately, Warner did not find a cupboard stocked with experienced talent in 1985. Only four starters returned from the ’84 squad that finished 8-3, winning the first state playoff game in Cardinal history.
Despite the inexperience and youth, Warner’s Albion team won his Cardinal coaching debut over Lakeview (21-12). The Albion News reported, “Senior tailback/cornerback Terry Fisher was Mr. Do-Everything for the Cards, churning out 103 yards and one touchdown rushing, completing both of his pass attempts for 54 yards and another score, making six tackles and knocking down several passes defensively, and punting five times for 122 yards.”
“I thought it was a great effort by a very young team playing its first game,” Warner told the newspaper. “They really went out and played hard.”
A 1-0 start. Confidence and energy for a new coach and a green team. Little could the Cardinals know what awaited.
Albion would lose seven straight games after the opening victory by a cumulative total of 210-22, including 39-0, 20-0, 26-0 and 58-0 shutouts. After that humbling stretch, give the team and coaching staff credit for continued effort, which led to the Cardinals nipping Central City 10-7 in the season finale. Albion took a 7-0 lead on Bruce Gragert’s touchdown run, but Central City tied the contest with 4:26 to play. Albion held the Bison scoreless on their overtime series and John Taylor booted the winning field goal on the Cards’ first play of the extra period.
The 1986 season brought another big change as Albion, now a C1 school, ended its 35-year membership in the Central 8/Central 10/Central Conference, one of the most competitive and highly-respected Class B leagues in Nebraska, beginning a short, ill-fated stint in the Louplatte Conference. Consisting of schools spread to the west, with which Albion had virtually no history, it was a poor fit.
The Cardinals certainly got off to a rocky start in the new league, suffering an 0-9 season (outscored 193-48). Albion lost a 3-0 overtime nail biter to Lakeview in the season opener and scored in double figures just twice (13 and 12 points). Gragert, Denny Johnson, Eric Johnson, Mike Morris and Jody Morgan did earn respect, however, awarded all-conference division awards following the campaign.
The 1987 season saw a real sea change for Cardinal football fortunes. After two seasons and a 2-16 record, Albion High School made a coaching change, welcoming Arnold Johnson to steer the Cardinal ship.
Johnson, who grew up in Oakland, had coached eight successful seasons at Howells (41-32-1) before arriving in Albion to begin what would become, by far, the longest and most successful coaching career in Cardinal football history. Most Cardinal fans are aware of what followed – a record of 198-90 leading Albion, Boone Central and Boone Central/Newman Grove teams. Class C1 state championships in 2001 and 2014, along with runner-up finishes in 2004 and 2012. Twenty state playoff berths in 27 years, including the final 17 seasons of his career. Awards and accolades.
But, would the turnaround from 2-16 be immediate? Would it ever!
Those who have followed Cardinal athletics in recent decades are familiar with the entire 1987 coaching staff, in fact. Assistants Chuck Perone, Dennis Walters and the late Jeff Bussey all had long careers in Albion and helped Johnson make a smooth transition.
Those coaches also had some very success-hungry ballplayers – with plenty of talent – to work with. Notably, a senior class that had taken its lumps for two seasons. The core of Bruce Gragert, Mike Morris, Jody Morgan, Pat Nissen, Bill Ransen, Kerry Wright, Denny Johnson and Courtney Schmid took full advantage of their new opportunity and led an amazing about-face in ’87 – from 0-9 to 9-2!
The season, in review, was fascinating. Albion was indefatigable, finding new ways to win game after game, more than a few by the slimmest of margins. The “Cardiac Cardinals” of their day! A season worth chronicling here.
The excitement began immediately, with Johnson earning his first Cardinal victory in a 24-21 thriller over Lakeview in the season opener. Gragert scored a pair of first-half touchdowns, but Albion trailed 14-12 at intermission due to failed conversion attempts. Nissen’s two short TD runs put the Cardinals in front 24-14 in the fourth period, but Lakeview closed the margin to three with 5:06 to play. The Vikings would not get another opportunity. Albion was forced to punt, but Lakeview was called for clipping prior to ball possession changing, giving the Cards a new set of downs. Two plays later, Lakeview was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct and, with the first down, Albion ran out the clock.
“I was very pleased with the effort the players gave throughout the game,” Johnson commented in the Albion News game coverage. “A lot of times when you are not used to winning and make mistakes early, your head starts to drop and so does your effort. These guys never let up and that’s why we won.”
That became a trait.
After rushing for 130 yards and two touchdowns against Lakeview, Gragert scored the first three TDs in a 26-12 victory over Burwell the following week. The challenges would get more stern from there.  Albion had a terrible start the following week against Adams Central, with, in fact, just four offensive snaps in the first quarter. Adams Central scored on the opening possession of the game, Albion fumbled on its second play and the Patriots immediately went ahead 12-0. Nissen finally got the Cardinals untracked with a 56-yard touchdown sprint and, in the third period, Albion tied the contest when Morgan fired a TD pass to tight end Brian Carder. Adams Central went back in front 18-12 with 8:25 remaining and it looked as if the Pats might ice the decision with an interception at the 2:37 mark. Albion forced a punt, however, and following a pass interference call on Adams Central, Morgan connected with Carder again for a 15-yard touchdown with :10 to play. The teams went to overtime after the PAT failed and Adams Central booted a field goal to lead 21-18. Not to be denied, Morgan scrambled for the winning TD on a third-down play and Albion had a bonafide winning streak!
“There is only one bad thing about this win and that is that I found two gray hairs the next morning, and I’m only 30 years old!” Johnson told the News.
The heart testers continued with a 15-13 win over Centura. Gragert put Albion ahead 7-0 early, but Centura immediately tied the score 7-7 with an 82-yard touchdown pass. The Centurions took a 13-7 lead, intercepted a Cardinal pass and drove to the Albion 11-yard line before the Card defense stiffened and Morris blocked a field goal attempt in the final 30 seconds of the first half. Gragert scored his second touchdown in the fourth period to tie (13-13) and Albion drove to the Centura 34 with 1:53 to play. Centura intercepted a Cardinal pass at the six-yard line, but two plays later, under a heavy pass rush, the Centurions’ QB was called for intentional grounding in the end zone – a safety for Albion. The Cardinals recovered Centura’s onside kick and had found yet another way to remain unbeaten.
Albion found a little breathing room the following week, bolting to a 39-7 lead and playing many reserve players in a 51-29 romp over Loup City.
Ord finally found the potion to offset ‘Cardinal Magic,’ putting the first blemish on Johnson’s Albion coaching record with a 19-6 victory. Albion actually opened scoring with Gragert’s one-yard TD run, but Ord then put the game in Jesse Nelson’s hands and the Chanticleer workhorse delivered, rushing for 255 of Ord’s 278 total yards on 38 carries.
“The second half, Ord physically stuffed us,” Johnson stated simply.
The loss proved to be a momentary hiccup, as Albion bounced back to defeat St. Paul 20-6 and Ravenna 28-6, winning the Louplatte Conference championship and officially qualifying for the state playoffs. Following the St. Paul win, Johnson told the News, “We played our best football of the year in the first half. Both offensively and defensively, there was a high degree of execution. The Albion Cardinals didn’t want to share the conference crown with anyone.”
Albion rode sturdy work by its offensive line and the legs of Nissen and Gragert to get back on track. Nissen rushed for 124 yards against St. Paul and 168 vs. Ravenna, with Gragert gaining 114 in the win over the Wildcats and 103 against Ravenna. Even with those impressive performances, Johnson noted, “We now have the job of keeping our momentum going so we remain sharp for the playoffs.”
Albion took a 7-1 record into the regular season finale, a matchup with longtime Central 10 rival Central City. ‘Back to the Future’ – of nail biters, that is. Gragert gave Albion a 7-0 first-quarter lead with a touchdown run that followed Morgan’s pass to Morris at the eight-yard line. Central City knotted the score with :08 remaining in the first half, but fumbled to begin the third period. Albion bolted 41 yards in five plays, Gragert scoring from 12 yards out to put the Cardinals on top 14-7. The Bison tallied with 8:59 remaining in the game and went for the lead with a “swinging gate” two-point conversion play that the Albion defense foiled. The teams swapped punts in the final minutes and Albion took possession with 2:49 to play and the 14-13 lead. Morgan connected with Morris for a 12-yard gain and first down, allowing the Cardinals to run out the clock from there.
Sea change, indeed – 0-9 to 8-1 and a return to the state playoffs!
Johnson’s first Cardinal foray into the playoffs would also begin on a successful note. Albion earned home field advantage with the victory over Central City and scored a 14-7 win over a tough 8-0 West Holt squad led by future University of Nebraska defensive tackle Jamie Liewer. The Cardinals were relatively ineffective in the first half, but dominated the second, limiting West Holt to just 39 yards while controlling action with 144 rushing yards of their own.
West Holt took a 7-0 lead in the second period that held up until the fourth quarter. Albion was finally able to finish a drive that began in the third period when Kerry Wright crashed into the end zone from two yards out. Albion regained possession midway through the final stanza and got a key run by Nissen from the 45 to the West Holt 18-yard line. On third and 12, Gragert tossed a halfback pass to Morris for the go-ahead and touchdown, and Morgan’s PAT made it 14-7 with 5:35 to play. West Holt later began a final possession with :50 remaining. The Huskies completed a 46-yard pass to the Albion 22, but two plays later Ken Beister broke up a final West Holt aerial to preserve the victory.
“We’ve been in a lot of close games this year and I think that helped us in this game. We didn’t lose our confidence and we just kept coming at them,” Johnson was quoted in the News account. “Our intensity improved throughout the game. I was very satisfied with our hitting. I felt we hit harder in this game than we had in any other game.”
The Cardinals’ dreams would end there, as North Platte St. Patrick’s, a Class C powerhouse at the time, defeated Albion 27-8 in the second round. Although the Cards trailed just 7-0 at halftime, they fumbled on the second play of the second half, with St. Pat’s recovering in the end zone. Albion attempted and failed on a fake punt to end its next possession and St. Pat’s added a third touchdown two plays later. Just like that, 21-0.
The final loss certainly can’t detract from a terrific season, however. Johnson told the News he had challenged his team every week during the season not to be satisfied.
“Now that it’s all said and done these kids can be very satisfied,” he praised.
Albion was amply rewarded for its success with postseason honors. Denny Johnson, Kerry Wright, Jody Morgan, Bruce Gragert, Courtney Schmid, Mike Morris, Pat Nissen and John Becker were awarded Louplatte All-Conference recognition, and Ritchie Nelson and Bill Ransen received Louplatte Honorable Mention. In addition, Johnson was selected to All-State teams as an offensive guard, with Nissen and Gragert all-state honorable mention.
Albion would continue to be a tough, competitive team in 1988 and 1989, but could not recapture the magic of that ’87 squad while rebuilding experience in the program.
With just five seniors and two lettermen in 1988, the Cardinals finished 4-5, dropping four of the final five games after a 3-1 start that began with a 9-7 win over Lakeview on Brian Carder’s last-second field goal. The highlight of the season was the lone victory in that final five-game stretch, as Albion shocked state-rated Ravenna 25-6. Damon Schmadeke rushed for 140 yards and Matt Hageman threw touchdown passes of 36 yards to Carder and 18 to Allen Glaser.
The 1989 season marked the final major change of the decade, as Albion abandoned the Louplatte Conference to begin membership in the Mid-State, which continues today. There was also an interesting side note to the campaign, as the Albion News reported the Cardinal roster included three sets of twins – Greg and Jeff Belgum, Damon and Darren Schmadeke, and Kirk and Kevin Kendrick.
Albion finished just 4-4, but actually entertained playoff hopes until the final week of the season. The bane of those hopes turned out to be the Cardinals’ initial Mid-State Conference contest in week two. The News reported, “Last Friday turned out to be ‘Black Friday’ for the Albion Cardinals. They traveled to Tilden for their first conference game of the year against Elkhorn Valley and turned up short, 0-6, in a double overtime game that saw both sides defend at their best.”
Albion had defeated Lakeview 12-7 in the opener, and would add wins over Loup City (31-8), Burwell (35-6) and West Point Central Catholic (first Mid-State win – 43-0). Along with the Elkhorn Valley defeat, the Cards fell to West Point (21-6) and powerful Battle Creek (21-0), entering the final game of the season 4-3.
The Cardinals were coming off the victories over Burwell and WPCC, facing Norfolk Catholic and needing a win to earn a playoff berth. “We are still fighting for our lives to get back in the playoff picture,” Johnson noted. “I sure hope that the fact we stubbed our toe against Elkhorn Valley doesn’t knock us out of the picture.”
Unfortunately, Albion would stub its other toe and fall short. After a scoreless first half, Catholic scored a third-quarter touchdown and added a field goal in the fourth for a 10-0 victory.
“We are a much better ball club now compared to the beginning of the season,” Johnson praised in the News. “I wish we had a chance to prove it in the playoffs, but the loss of playoff points because of the Tilden game caused us to be just out of the running.”
Three Cards – back Darren Schmadeke, linebacker Bill Hoppe, defensive back Scott Stopak – earned Mid-State All-Conference honors in Albion’s initial season in the league.
Although Albion was just 19-27 over those final five seasons of the 1980s, it was a very memorable period of Cardinal football. Coaching changes, the chaos of not one, but two conference switches for the first time in school history, and the beginning of a remarkable coaching career, with a thrilling 9-2 1987 season beginning Arnie Johnson’s Albion/Boone Central tenure that would finally be bookended in 2014 with his 198th Cardinal victory and second state championship.
All setting up three of the most successful decades in Cardinal football history.
Stay tuned.