CALEDONIA, Minn. — It’s gotten to the point where football has even seeped into Stacey Meyer’s English classes at Caledonia High School, about 15 miles west of the Minnesota-Wisconsin border in the southeastern part of the state.
Sixty-seven straight football wins by the Warriors — the longest streak in the nation — is tough to ignore. And Meyer, like so many in this southeastern Minnesota bluff-country town of 2,800, is in no hurry to look the other way.
Quite the opposite.
“I’ll use football analogies in class sometimes to get the kids’ attention,” Meyer said. “In our writing group work, like in football, everyone has to have a role and everyone has to do their part. We have to perform like a team. Some of our football players make real connections from those analogies. I see them nodding.”
Nodding is something that this town has done collectively and fervently ever since native son Carl Fruechte took over as Warriors head football coach in 1997. They nod to the 1984 Caledonia graduate's relentless and tough-love approach, they nod to all of the commitment required, they nod to all of the winning that it’s produced, and they nod to how football has helped raise young men.
“We are very fortunate to have had this success in football,” Caledonia athletic director Scott Sorenson said. “It breeds a culture and improves everything around here.”
Meyer, a bookish type who is raising a pair of girls — both dancers — is absolutely one of the nodders. Football’s impact on this town, she says, is unmistakable. And it goes well beyond the thrill of fielding a nationally renowned winner.
Winning on the field and off it, that’s a constant battle for any coach. And the way Carl Fruechte does it, it's massively time consuming.
“It’s fun and exciting to go to the games and have the community together, watching and cheering,” she said. “But it’s also mattered for these (players) in the scheme of life. It teaches them that you have to stay focused, and that you can’t reach your larger goals unless you’re doing what you need to do to take that next step.”
Step by step
It is Fruechte, above all, who determined way back when what those steps needed to be in order to get this program to the “promised land.”
What lay in front of him wasn’t at all promising when he took over in 1997. Fruechte knew this first hand, having been a Caledonia football assistant before landing the head job.
“We had a bunch of kids (in 1996) who weren’t very interested in football at the time,” Fruechte said. “It was a disaster and eye opening. The sport has to mean something to kids, and it has to mean more than just winning games. You talk about culture and you talk about getting more buy-in from parents and kids.”
After what had transpired in '96, almost no one expected Fruechte’s Warriors to do much his first season.
“Our athletic director at the time told me, ‘Carl, I want you to relax, because you aren’t likely to win a game,” Fruechte recalled.
About the only one who wasn’t buying that was Fruechte himself. And good luck getting this guy to relax.
Never one to concede anything, Fruechte was here to win — immediately.
And he did.
“We made it all the way to the section finals my first year, losing to Dover-Eyota in the championship,” Fruechte said. “Then the next year we went unbeaten in the regular season.”
It took Fruechte only that long to come to one of his most important realizations about building a football program.
It’s that it is vitally important to have not just a few buy in to what you’re doing and selling, but just about everybody. He’d certainly heard that football was a numbers game. But now he knew it for sure.
“I realized that I had to create depth on my teams,” Fruechte said. “I started to rotate everyone in (to games). I needed to get everyone involved.”
'Play for me'
Part of that initial “getting them involved” happened in the Caledonia hallways, and at the Caledonia school lunch tables, and at the Caledonia supermarket.
These were all recruiting places for the Warriors' energetic coach. And after 23 years on the job, they still are.
But his first few years of recruiting kids to play — while it worked — he admits wasn’t completely healthy. Not for him or the ones he was prodding.
Fruechte had a heck of a time taking no for an answer. That persisted until one day while on a bit of a desperate walk by himself.
“I remember pacing the football field when I had my ‘ah-ha,’ moment,” Fruechte said. “I thought to myself, ‘Who is the greatest teacher of all time?’ Well, it’s Jesus Christ, and he couldn’t even get everyone to join him. So I told myself that I had to stop beating myself up (when prospective players turned him down). I had to calm down, I had to relax. I had to get my priorities in order. If a kid doesn’t want to play football, it’s not life and death, and I had to stop taking it personally.
“That helped free my soul.”
That freer soul hasn’t stopped him from recruiting, though, sometimes checking in on a kid more than once. The truth is, few have turned him down. A glance at this season’s Caledonia roster is the latest proof. Sixty boys are on it, grades 9-12, including eighth-grade quarterback Lewis Doyle, an “early” call up. Contrast that to three of its last four opponents in this year’s playoffs, Pipestone with 47 on its roster, Chatfield with 33 and St. Charles with 46.
“Kids want to be a part of this,” Caledonia senior linebacker Jed Kasten said. “(Fruechte) has a lot to do with that. He has such dedication to the sport and he’s like a father figure to everyone. He’s always on us, but it’s because he cares about us. He never quits.”
It’s not just Caledonia’s constant stream of players, as well as Fruechte’s energy and direction that have made this football program work. It’s also his assistant coaches and workout leaders who’ve stayed faithful to him and this program for so many years.
Loyal, talented staff
Among Fruechte’s 13 assistants, six have been with him for 10 years or longer and six are former players of his. That longevity and familiarity has been crucial to this program’s unmatched consistent success.
While all of them are vital in making this thing work, it is 42-year-old Brent Schroeder who is most connected to Fruechte and certainly ranks highest among his Caledonia assistants. They’ve been coaching together for 19 years.
In fact, Fruechte doesn’t even like to label Schroeder as an assistant.
“Really, we are co-head coaches,” Fruechte said.
When Fruechte stepped down as Caledonia head coach from 2010-15 in order to more easily watch his daughter Alecia play college volleyball and son Isaac play college football, it was Schroeder who took the head job. Fruechte never left the program in that span. Instead, he just handed over some of his usual head-coaching duties to Schroeder. And all of that worked. Schroeder was the Warriors' head coach from 2010-15. Caledonia won four state titles in that span.
“We wouldn’t have won any of these state titles without Brent,” said Fruechte, whose Warriors have hoarded them since he took over in 1997, winning it all nine times, including the last four years. No. 1-ranked Caledonia has a chance to make it five straight on Friday, Nov. 29, when it meets No. 3 Minneapolis North in the Class AA Prep Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I’ve always felt like we’ve had two head coaches, Brent and I,” Fruechte said. “There has never been any jealousy with that. With our coaching staff, it is not a ‘me’ thing, it is a ‘we’ thing.”
Schroeder, whose Caledonia defenses routinely rate among the state’s best, doesn’t completely buy into being on a par with Fruechte, who runs the Caledonia offense. That’s especially true when it comes to ownership of this program.
He says that Fruechte is in a class by himself.
“Carl is the one,” Schroeder said. “He is the one who started all of this off. He’s special. He’s the guy who eats, lives and breathes athletics and turning kids into great members of our society. That is his mission, to make kids the best they can be.”
It literally is Fruechte who starts things off for this program five days a week, almost 365 days a year.
He’s the one who opens the Caledonia High School weight room door each of those days, appearing just as the sun is rising, at 6:30 a.m.
“I like to get out,” he says.
He also likes it when his players — and any athlete in any sport at Caledonia, boy or girl — choose to “get out” with him. That means taking him up on his daily invitation for these crack-of-dawn workout sessions. During the football off-season, that is weight lifting Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and speed work Tuesdays and Thursdays.
And they do join him, en masse. Fruechte estimates that between 35-40 boys and girls, most of them football players, show up each morning for these sessions, year round.
Frueche greets each as they come through the door, every day. He’s well aware of the sacrifice they’re making.
“I pat them on the back and tell them ‘thank you’ for coming,” Fruechte said. “I tell them that I know that they don’t have to get up and do this, but that they are. As they get older, I think they understand the importance of being there.”
The athletes aren’t the only ones who Fruechte is giving thanks to those early mornings. There is also a 66-year old Kentucky native who treks in from La Crosse for those thrice-weekly weight-lifting sessions. That is Ernie Hodges, Caledonia’s volunteer weight-lifting instructor the past 25 years.
Hodges works nights as a freight relocation specialist at Earl Bonsack Trucking in La Crosse. The former body builder makes that 6 a.m., 23-mile drive to Caledonia with joy on his face. Hodges cherishes being a part of this Warriors football program, with his role teaching players as much about developing mental as physical strength.
“I start working with these kids when they’re in sixth grade, helping them find their way,” Hodges said. “I love football, I love kids and I love what we do here. I pretty much fell in love with the whole program, which I guess I helped create. We spend a lot of time talking about life and being a good person. And I help teach them to stay mentally focused, no matter what is happening. We do a lot of visualization.”
When it comes to Caledonia football, which has sent two players to the NFL under Fruechte (2006 Caledonia graduate Karl Klug and 2010 graduate Isaac Fruechte, Carl's son), the visual that keeps coming to mind is one thing — domination.
The Warriors are the best in the country at it with their nation-leading 67-game winning streak and nine state championships in 12 years.
Speed, strength, strategy, togetherness, drive, imagination. Under Fruechte and the rest of his regime, it’s all there, every year.
Just ask Barnesville coach Bryan Strand, whose team has lost to Caledonia in the state playoffs three of the past four years. That includes a 43-12 man-handling by Caledonia in last week's semifinals.
"The Caledonia kids are physically stronger than everybody else's," Strand said. "We have a good weight-room program, but it is not theirs. And they train for speed and they are fast. Then, once they get on top of you, they are relentless. If you're going to beat them, you're going to have to play an almost perfect game. I have a ton of respect for them."