The Albion Cardinals had missed the playoffs in the final two seasons of the 1980s, narrowly in 1989, but Coach Arnie Johnson had firmly laid his foundation of philosophy, principles and culture during his first three seasons.
Albion returned 12 senior lettermen and four junior lettermen in 1990, including standout backs Damon and Darren Schmadeke, quarterback/tight end Matt Hagemann and all-conference defensive back Scott Stopak. That mix of experience and talent was rewarded with a solid season and a return to postseason competition.
The Cardinals did have a slow start, with a rare season-opening 21-13 loss to Lakeview in which the Vikings outyarded Albion 399-123. Already thinking about possible playoff qualifying ramifications, Johnson commented, “Lakeview played much better than they usually do. We need Lakeview to continue winning and I think this year they will.”
The following week, a 47-7 rout of Elkhorn Valley was sweet revenge for the previous season’s 6-0 loss to the Falcons that cost Albion a playoff berth. The Cardinal defense then held Madison to 56 total yards and Damon Schmadeke exploded for 266 yards rushing in a 33-6 victory. Albion posted shutouts over Stanton (33-0) and Central City (34-0) to run its record to 4-1.
The win streak was snapped the following week in a hard-fought 14-6 loss to Battle Creek. The Braves connected on a 21-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and added a 39-yard scoring strike with 7:14 remaining in the third period. “Big plays really hurt us. The fact they had the first two big plays and scored not only hurt on the scoreboard, but gave them a great deal of momentum,” Johnson noted.
Riding Damon Schmadeke’s 181 yards, Albion rebounded with a 49-0 whitewash of Rock County, then garnered the key victory of the season with a 7-0 decision over West Point Central Catholic in a very physical game. With playoff qualification on the line, Albion finally sustained a 15-play scoring drive that began in the third period and carried into the fourth. Monte Brown hit Hagemann at the WPCC 15-yard line on a third-and-11 and, on fourth down after gaining another first down at the two, Darren Schmadeke punched across the goal line for the winning points.
“It was another physical game,” Johnson stated to the News. “The players deserve a lot of credit. The kids played as hard as I’ve seen them play. I hope we can get healthy for our next game.”
That next game, a 21-7 loss to Norfolk Catholic, was marred by a bad Cardinal start. Catholic recovered an early Albion fumble at the Cardinal six-yard line and scored in two plays. Three plays later, the Knights scooped up a bad Albion punt snap and scored, pushing the lead to 13-0 just three minutes into the contest. Albion pulled within 13-7 at halftime after capitalizing on a Catholic fumble, but the Knights recovered another Card fumble at the 10 in the fourth quarter and tallied the clinching touchdown. As Johnson said following the game, “You just can’t give the ball to a good team three times at, or inside, the 10 and expect to win.”
Still, it was on to the playoffs with a 6-3 record and a long trip west to Imperial. Albion had a quick start, Damon Schmadeke scoring after a Mike Johnson interception early in the first quarter. Imperial recovered and fought back to lead 7-6 at intermission, but Albion would take the advantage with the key sequence of the game to begin the second half. An Imperial punt snap sailed out of the back of the end zone after the Tigers failed to move on the first possession of the third quarter, giving Albion an 8-7 edge. The Cardinals then took the ensuing kick and drove to paydirt in 12 plays, Brown throwing a touchdown pass to Andy Bird. Jon Webster’s PAT put Albion in front 15-7. Imperial pulled within two early in the fourth period, but Albion clinched the 21-13 victory when Damon Schmadeke broke free and raced 46 yards for the final score.
The Cardinals were rewarded with a home game in the following round, ranked 5th in Class C1, and appeared poised to possibly make a deep playoff run. Little did they know those aspirations would be frozen when “Frost” came early to Albion.
That would be in the form of Wood River and a sophomore quarterback by the name of Scott Frost.
Albion had the advantage early, by a large margin. The Cardinals built a 26-7 lead in the first two-and-a-half quarters with Darren Schmadeke’s touchdown and three scores by Damon Schmadeke, including a state playoff record 99-yard interception return on the final play of the first half.
The final 15 minutes or so were a purple blur, however. Frost tallied three touchdowns, including bolts of 50 and 44 yards, and also blocked a Cardinal punt. When the scoreboard numbers finally quit spinning, Wood River toted home a stunning 35-26 victory.
Scott’s older brother Steve was a senior all-state lineman on that Wood River squad, coached by their father Larry Frost. Some time later, he recalled to reporters, “It was kind of at that point that Scott became Scott. He scored three touchdowns and blocked a punt. At that point, he realized he didn’t have to play football at the same speed as the rest of us.”
Albion certainly had nothing to be ashamed of. Many foes would fall victim to Frost’s magic in the following years. The Cardinals finished a Top 10 season 7-4, with Damon Schmadeke receiving first team All-State honors. Damon was also a Mid-State All-Conference offensive selection, with Chad Kahlandt, Hagemann, Stopak and Reeve Cunningham defensive All-Conference choices.
Albion actually improved to 7-2 in the 1991 regular season – but narrowly missed a state playoff berth with another loss to Norfolk Catholic in the final game. The Cardinals began the season with a five-game win streak before running into one of Bob Schnitzler’s Battle Creek juggernauts, featuring future Huskers Matt Hoskinson and Todd Uhlir.
The Class C #1 Braves thumped Albion 42-0 in a performance Schnitzler told reporters was their best of the season to that point. “We got beat by a very good group of athletes. Battle Creek, as a team, has great size and strength, as well as good quickness. They are probably one of the best teams I have ever coached against,” Johnson told the Albion News.
Albion bounced back to defeat Rock County (55-0) and West Point CC (21-7), but could not solve the Norfolk Catholic puzzle in a 40-21 season-closing loss. Monte Brown’s 58-yard touchdown pass to Brent Gragert pulled Albion within 20-14 and another Brown TD aerial to James Kelley kept the Cards close at 26-21 before a disastrous fourth period. Albion fumbled at its own three, with Catholic recovering in the end zone and the Knights took advantage of a failed fourth down attempt by Albion to add the final score.
“There were a few tears after this one,” Johnson commented later. “I could tell the team really wanted to win by the tears and hanging heads in the locker room. I’m very proud of this year’s team.”
Brown, Gragert, Adam Johnson, Nate Spiegel, Doug Borer, Kevin Kendrick and Jon Webster all received Mid-State All-Conference or Honorable Mention awards for their efforts.
Albion’s postseason drought would continue the next two seasons as the program began to build experience with young squads.
After a 7-0 opening loss to Lakeview in 1992, sophomore Jason Olnes rushed for 207 yards in a 39-6 victory over Elkhorn Valley, then gained 259 yards and scored 7 – seven! – touchdowns to pace a wild 65-42 win over Madison. Johnson contributed the understatement of the season when he told the News, “Defensively we’re still looking for better play.”
After rolling past Stanton, the Cardinals improved to 4-1 as Olnes led a 35-7 victory against Central City with 180 yards and four touchdowns.
Another strong Battle Creek squad would rudely halt the four-game win streak with a 49-13 victory, and Albion finished a 4-5 campaign with losses to Geneva (30-6), West Point CC (20-10) and Norfolk Catholic (34-14).
Olnes, who finished his soph season with 1,115 yards, was a Mid-State offensive first team All-Conference selection, with Spiegel earning second team recognition. Bird and Borer were named to the All-Conference defensive first team, Spiegel again on the second team.
The 1993 season began in promising fashion, Olnes pacing a 33-0 victory over Lakeview with 176 yards and three touchdowns. The campaign deteriorated from there.
Battle Creek was the second game foe and blanked the Cards 28-0, holding Olnes to 35 yards. “Losses like this one unfortunately don’t only take it out of you physically, but take a large toll on coaches and players mentally,” Johnson said following the game.
Madison posted a rare win over Albion (17-0) the following week and the Cardinals would get only two more W’s in the final six games of a 3-6 season, edging Stanton 14-13 and Elkhorn Valley 13-0. Albion trailed C1 #3 Catholic by just a touchdown (21-14) late in the first half, but the Knights once again pulled away in the final two periods for an emphatic 42-14 win.
After that final game, Johnson acknowledged it had been a tough season, with inexperience and injury, but added, “I was proud of the way we played. We played hard and had a great attitude.”
Sixteen lettermen and seven starters returned in 1994, steeled and ready to turn Albion’s fortunes around at the midpoint of the decade. That they did. Johnson’s eighth Cardinal team would battle to a 7-2 regular-season record and return Albion to postseason action.
Five senior starters missed the opener against Lakeview due to disciplinary action, but Chris Levander and Chris Borer stepped up, combining for 139 yards rushing and two touchdowns in a 28-7 victory.
One sign of progress actually came in a tough 20-14 overtime loss to Battle Creek in week two. Andy Starman passed 30 yards to Brent Litz to give Albion a 14-6 lead in the second quarter and Battle Creek knotted the score shortly before halftime. Following a scoreless defensive donnybrook in the second half, Albion missed a field goal in overtime and the Braves stole the win with a touchdown pass.
“We played as hard as I have seen us play for a few years. We played like we expected it,” Johnson praised in the News. “We aren’t there yet, but if we build from this game, we have a chance of becoming a very good team.”
Build they did, as Albion reeled off six straight victories from there. Olnes blitzed Madison for 223 yards in a 34-18 win and added 123 in a 28-17 victory over Stanton. Starman rallied Albion to a 21-15 victory over Central City with a touchdown run and scoring pass in the second half, but the game left Johnson concerned that, “a number of players are banged up right now.”
Jeremy Camp rushed for 103 yards and Litz caught five passes for 80 yards, including touchdowns of 26 and 21 yards from Starman, in a 20-0 win over Elkhorn Valley. Albion then squeeked by Hartington Cedar Cathollic 7-6 when, the News reported, “Olnes countered Hartington CC’s score and outran three Hartington CC defenders with an incredible 64 yard run.” Borer’s PAT provided the winning point.
Albion, boosted its C1 state ranking from 10th to 7th with a 12-7 victory over West Point CC. The Cardinals trailed 7-0 prior to Starman’s 33-yard TD pass and were down 7-6 at the end of three quarters. Olnes then broke free on a 76-yard touchdown gallop, finishing with 157 yards and the game winner.
Injuries and turnovers caught up with the Cards in the season finale, resulting in another frustrating loss to nemesis Norfolk Catholic (36-13). The Knights turned three interceptions into points, bolting to a 29-7 halftime advantage.
The Cardinals looked forward to their return to the state playoffs, but following a shocking 48-6 loss to Superior, may have wished they missed the bus and skipped the long trip south. “When the state tournament rolls around, it’s very important to be ready. We weren’t healthy and it hurt us,” Johnson noted.
Albion players were still rewarded for a fine campaign, with Olnes, Litz and Starman Mid-State All-Conference offensive selections, and Borer and Ryan Christo All-Conference defensive choices. Olnes also received AP All-State honors after rushing for 972 yards and nine touchdowns despite fighting some nagging injuries.
It always stings to finish a season with a 42 point loss, but Albion could hold its collective head high after returning to the playoffs with its 7-3 record. There would be more playoff berths, and postseason success, ahead as the Cardinal program began building itself into one of the state’s most respected high school football programs.
Don’t miss the conclusion of the 1990s decade in the June 10 edition of the Albion News.