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If You Build It

03/18/2021, 5:15am CDT
By Dan Bauer

The CFM Sabers Journey to a State Championship

Outside of the Chippewa Falls/Menomonie Sabers lockeroom there didn’t appear to be any state championship contender hype as the 2020-21 WIAA season began. With eight consecutive losing seasons trailing them and six one and done playoff appearances, winning a state championship appeared unlikely. Add in the fact that the Sabers’ season had been paused due to Covid-19, and it seemed nearly impossible.

However, inside the CFM lockeroom there was something building. It wasn’t driven by a win-loss record, but by a belief in the momentum they were creating out of the spotlight. “At the end of last year, we had a good feeling internally that we could make it to state,” recalled head coach Tony Menard. “I think we could all feel it coming.” The question really became, would there be a season? The fear was front and center, “to not have control on whether or not we were going to play scared not only me but everyone in the program,” according to Menard.

Building a Foundation

Like many girls’ programs, the Chippewa Falls team started with great success going 63-24-3 with two state tournament berths and a state runner-up in 2007. Their head coach Andy Skelton, Menard’s cousin, was the program’s first coach guiding them to a 63-24-3 record over four seasons. Mikayla Hogan led the program with 202 points in her three year career. She would later be a pivotal assistant coach and contributor to the team’s success. In 2010 Eric Krista took over the program that was now the Chippewa Falls-Menomonie co-op. The combined program had successful 15-8-1 and 14-7-3 seasons the first two years. After that positive start, the CFM program began to struggle. Like many girls programs the youth ranks had not built a strong girls foundation. Menard, a three sport athlete and graduate of Eau Claire North, took the reins of the program in 2014. It was his cousin Andy that was responsible for getting Tony started as a player and then brought him into coaching as an assistant. “I owe Andy so much as coaching has brought so much fulfillment to my life,” Menard offered.

Menard inherited a struggling program and endured 18, 21, 19 and 17 loss seasons in his first four years.

As the losing seasons mounted, parents began to doubt whether Menard, as a young coach, in his mid-twenties, was the right man for the job. Tony recalled phone calls and emails including one early on that laid out the line combinations he should consider. In 2019 after losing two of three in a rough holiday tournament Menard hit rock bottom, “I really questioned my love of coaching,” he admitted.

Judging the value of a coach or program based solely on wins and loses can be a very imprecise and ineffective measuring stick. Laying down a character based foundation can be a monumental task in today’s athletic climate. For some parents and players chasing after winning programs seems as innate as a dog chasing after a car. While Menard knew what he wanted to build he also knew what he didn’t want. “I had a coach that preached about pride in the team and program, but then allowed people to be a part of the program who were not always the best away from the game,” he cautioned. “This always stuck with me because you could see the coach allowing peoples talent to be the only thing that mattered, and to me high school athletics is much more than that.”

It was during this challenging time that Menard struck up a relationship with UW-Eau Claire coach Erik Strand who was himself in the midst of resurrecting the Blugold Women’s program. Menard noted, “We had some good conversations and he helped me a lot that season. I began to trust myself and my process more and more.”

Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at drbauer13@gmail.com.

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With his vision for the program being severely tested, Menard stayed the course he had set. “I always told myself I wasn't going to sacrifice the culture I wanted in order to win games,” he said. “Oftentimes having the hard conversations with players or parents was not the easiest thing to do, but ultimately I was going to stick to my guns and try to get the culture to be the highlight of the program no matter the wins or losses.” 

Sometimes those difficult conversations led to players leaving the program. Menard remembered his struggle to reconcile those departures, “At first it was hard for me to see players stop playing or not come out the next year and felt that I was the reason they stopped loving the game of hockey. I had to understand that the process is not for everyone.”

Melissa Martin, whose daughter Abby is a senior, remembers Menard’s perseverance during those trying early years,  “He never missed a beat,” Melissa said, “even though he knew (of the parent unrest), he never let on to the parents and continued to say hard work pays off, it's not about x’s and o’s.” Martin’s daughter Abby continued, “Positivity is a quality that coach always has, no matter the circumstance. He is never one to get his head down in a hard situation or lose his composure.”

In fact the team adopted the motto “hard work pays off” and used it as a rallying cry.  “It's something to just think about when you are tired, hurting, or mentally drained,” Menard explained. “If you continue to work hard and put the effort in, it will pay off.  And the payoff isn't necessarily about winning a state championship; it's pushing yourself to be a better version of you, always wanting to be a better person each and every day.”

Chippewa Falls Athletic Director Mike Thompson maintained his support and belief in Menard through the hard times. “Tony and I had many discussions on turning this around from a competitive standpoint, but also from a team aspect,” reflected Thompson. “I suggested starting with reading the book You Win in the Locker Room First by Jon Gordon and Mike Smith. This really set the tone for Tony and his program.  The group was very intentional on being selfless, coming together as a group, redefining success in the form of effort and attitude, and of course controlling the things we can control,” Thompson continued. “It didn't happen right away, but we could see the results.  You could feel the difference.”

The Birth of the Sabers

The 2017-18 season is when Menard began to see the fruits of his labor and some major changes within the programs culture. He had a small but influential senior class that had been with him for three years and what he described as “an eager and excited freshman group.” It was also the first year of their brand new lockeroom facility that is perhaps second to none in the entire state. A UW-Stout graduate, Menard is grateful to this day for those that helped make the lockeroom a reality back in 2016. “When they get to see the history on the walls, and the old team pictures and team records it gives them something to push for every day,” he said. “Also, before and after practice they are in there together, laughing, making jokes and creating a space where it feels like their own.” 

During the 2018-19 season the team narrowed their focus and chose the path they would follow. Borrowing from author Ben Bergeron’s book, Chasing Excellence, the team selected four words to guide the program, Commitment, Attitude, Respect and Coachable. According to Thompson, “This is when the team took off.  The attitudes were great, the team bought in, and the results started to take care of themselves.”

There seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel. “You could start to feel the program and the culture in the team change,” Menard recalled. Melissa Martin observed similar changes, “From making sure the locker room was positive, to including everyone in team bonding events. The culture was changing, and the girls brought the parent's along.”

After nine years of simply being the CFM co-op, the team had a makeover during the summer of 2019. They determined they needed an identity of their own and became the CFM Sabers, complete with new logo design and new uniforms. It seemed to be the final piece of the puzzle needed to unify the team and set them on their mission. “It was like we were reborn,” noted Melissa Martin.

Menard credits the senior class of 2021 as the leaders who ignited and helped foster the program’s turnaround. They had survived the hard times of winning just one conference game and not a single playoff game. “It was a time when the walls of a broken program had crumbled and a locker room broken into pieces, and a time where the foundation was getting put back together,” Menard noted proudly. “This group of seniors was determined to get the program headed back in the right direction.”

The truth is they had been planning and dreaming of this season since they were twelve years old. In the face of unimaginable obstacles the seven seniors, (Abby Martin, Alexa Wickland, Ashley Anderson, Caroline O’Dell, Ella Ausman, Kendall Rudiger, and Sidney Polzin) were now poised to make that dream come true. Senior Abby Martin, who will play for Trine University next season, described the team’s lockeroom, “The most important thing that made our team was the relationships that we had with each other. Every person on the team knew their role. The culture on the team was the best that it has been, the positivity that the team brought every day was something special.”

The Championship Season Begins

With fall sports being canceled and winter sports on notice, everyone across the state waited for the WIAA’s decision. Some schools canceled their programs and others paused, many started on time. When assistant coach Paul Wurtz resigned, it may have been fate that intervened bringing Andy Skelton and Menard back together for this moment. Nearly eleven years after they had started their coaching journey, they were re-united behind the CFM bench.

After a tenuous three week delay, CFM was given the green light to start their season on December 7th. The Sabers may have looked like icebergs to their opponents, unassuming from above, but deadly below the surface. With many WIAA opponents already playing games the Sabers had to make up for lost time. There was however, also a silver lining with only twenty-four teams participating. The WIAA restructured the girl’s sectionals and moved rival and nemesis Eau Claire Area out of Section One, affectionately known as “The Section of Death”.

This past season will go down as a nightmare for most athletic directors who faced never ending challenges to keep things moving forward. That dedication was not lost on Menard, “Seeing the work that Mike put in to ensure we could start and have a respectable season still leaves me in awe as he had some tough battles to fight,” acknowledged Menard.

In a season packed with uncertainty the Sabers traveled to Stevens Point to open the season against the Wisconsin Valley Union. The game ended up as a scrimmage when one official did not show up. Their second game scheduled to be played on Monday was canceled when the Western Wisconsin Stars were quarantined. Scrambling to get their season underway, Menard reached out to the Union on Sunday night and arranged a game with them on Monday. They opened the season with a 2-1 win over WVU in Menomonie. On Wednesday, their game with Hudson was canceled. It was an inauspicious beginning.

A convincing 6-1 win, their first in team history, over perennial power, Central Wisconsin, in just their second game provided a confidence boost that a state tournament appearance was indeed in reach. “That game set the tone and the belief that we should be in any game we play the rest of the season,” Menard predicted. Eleven of their sixteen opponents would be top ten teams in the state as they built a 9-6-1 regular season record. They finished ranked a modest sixth in the state’s final regular season poll. “You need to be in tough moments during the season to make sure you can do that during the post season when everything is on the line,” said Menard.

Most championships are a sort of “perfect storm” and the CFM run was no different. Menard credits the Chippewa Youth Hockey Association for keeping its doors open during the pandemic this past summer as a key component to his team’s success. Former assistant coach Mikayla Hogan stayed highly involved with the team skating with them four days a week when many rinks were shuttered. They, the CYHA, “gave these girls the chance to continue to pursue their dream of a state title safely,” he noted.

Surviving the ominous start to his head coaching career, 37-102-6 didn’t happen without staunch support from the CFM parents. Pushing through the second guessing and doubt among some parents was an exercise most every coach must deal with at some point in their career. If your message is one of character development and teaching life lessons, the majority of parents will support and defend your philosophy. According to Thompson that was a crucial component. “The parents were a big part of this because we needed them on board to help send these messages.”  Thompson continued, “Tony set the blueprint and trusted the process.”

Despite those who doubted Menard’s vision, many were firmly on board. “He is such a calming presence,” said Martin who had become a buffer or liaison between Menard and the parents. “He never yells he always explains. Some people say he is too nice but in his case it was exactly what we needed, a calm nice guy who would do his job and not worry about what others thought.   He coached, the girls performed and they changed this program into something that they will never forget. “

Team success almost always brings individual recognition and for the Sabers this held true. Menard, at age thirty, was named Wisconsin Girl’s Hockey Coaches Association, Coach of the Year. Senior forward, Sidney Polzin, was selected 1st Team All State, Jinelle Siergiej Award finalist and Miss Hockey 2021. Polzin, who will play at St. Mary’s in Winona next season, finished her career with 131 points, 3rd on the team’s All Time scoring list. Seniors, defenseman Ella Ausman (St. Marys) and goalie Caroline O’Dell were 2nd Team All State selections. With the playoffs looming the stars seemed to be aligning in the Sabers favor.

Tying the Knot”

As a surprising fourth seed, CFM drew a first round game, and perhaps some added motivation. No one could blame the Sabers if they had some doubt in their mind as they hosted Hayward in the playoffs. Just four days earlier the Hurricanes had pulled off an unlikely 4-3 overtime win against CFM. They had also ended the Sabers season a year ago. Citing it as “playing their best hockey when it counts,” Menard’s Sabers dismantled the Hurricanes in a convincing 4-0 victory. “After the game it was almost like we all could breathe a sigh of relief,” said Menard. “The monkey was off our back as we got our first playoff win in 7 years.”

Next up was the top seeded Western Wisconsin Stars and the difficult task of shutting down their top threat, Ellie Brice, who scored twenty-nine goals in seventeen games. Looking to avenge a 3-2 loss early in the season, they held Brice to a lone assist in a hard fought 3-2 road win. The team demonstrated their scoring balance with their second playoff win without a Polzin goal. St. Croix Valley, in the sectional final, would be their last hurdle to the state tournament.

It was back on the road to River Falls and a third meeting with the Fusion. Polzin stepped to the forefront with four goals and an assist as CFM held off the Fusion for a 7-4 win. After a twelve year absence and some difficult stretches the program had returned to the state tournament. The pandemic restricted format would send the Sabres on their third consecutive road trip to face the Central Wisconsin Storm on the big ice at the Greenheck Fieldhouse. With teammate Paige Steinmetz sidelined, the team ignored sacred pre-game ritual and moved their team huddle from the net to the sideboards where their teammate was watching. Said Martin, “We wanted to be sure everyone on the team was included.” The hockey gods smiled as CFM capitalized on their seventeen shots and when Emma-Lyn Stephenson scored the overtime game winner on the powerplay, only her 4th goal of the season, the Sabers dream was one win away.

On a sunny February Saturday afternoon, in Wisconsin Rapids, not the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, the CFM Sabers battled the USM Wildcats for the WIAA championship trophy. The Sabers completed their mission with a heart pounding 3-2 overtime win, on a goal by sophomore Joey Schemenauer. The senior class made their dream come true. Abby Martin reflected on the moment, “I got to leave the program better than where I started, we tied the knot.”

“Winning the championship was great that day, but being able to look back at everything it took to get to that point and to see the love that all the players and parents had for everyone involved this year and last year is why I stuck to my guns all of those years,” reflected Menard. “I never thought it would end up in a championship, but I knew it would end up in the greatness of a team sport for everyone.”

Championships are never the product of an overnight success. On the surface the CFM turnaround may appear to be a quick study, but when you look deep inside, the program building took years to engineer. It was proof that if you build it the right way and establish the right culture, great things can happen.

Athletic Director Mike Thompson summed it up, “This program got what they earned and they did it the right way:  Team First!”

 

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