Caledonia Athletics: It's not the water that makes great athletes...it's the genes

By Dugan Thomas

CALEDONIA, MN - 12/27/2012

The 2012 fall sports season in Caledonia ended up being very special. The Warriors football program just won it's fifth state title in the last six years, and the volleyball team had it's best season ever, bringing home the state runner-up trophy. Caledonia High School almost swept the two premier fall sports activities in the state, and were just a few sets short of making it legendary. That's the kind of stuff that gets people in the Coulee Region wondering, "there must be something in the water over there? How can Caledonia be that good?" The explanation is simple. It's not the water that makes great athletes...it's the genes.

As the 2012 fall season progressed, the Warriors top athletes started to fill the headlines. These legendary names from Caledonia's past were looking very familiar. Kasten, Lapham, Schmitz, Pitts, Lange, Fruechte, Winjum. There's a reason why these names looked so familiar. There's a certain phrase that holds true here. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree - and in this case, that phrase couldn't be more true.

Let's start with the Miles and Lois Schmitz family - and when I say family, I mean family (plural), 12 kids. Was there a member of this family that wasn't an outstanding athlete? I don't think so. There were three stars on this year's football team - Levi Schmitz, Ryan Pitts, and Zach Kasten, all first cousins and all part of the Schmitz family.

The "Magic Man", Levi Schmitz, son of Rob and Ann (Bauer) Schmitz. I know Levi isn't too fond of the nickname, but he'll forever be known as "Magic Man" for what he did on the football field this season. Wide receiver, linebacker, kicker, punter, and jack of all trades, Levi barely came off the field for the Warriors this season. He had highlight plays on both sides of the ball all year long, but the two playoff games in the Metrodome will cement his legacy in Caledonia football lore. In the state semi-final against BOLD, Levi had a 46 yard touchdown reception, another highlight reel catch that led to a touchdown, and a blocked punt for a TD. In the state championship game, his last second 24-yard game winning field goal sealed Caledonia's third straight state title, and it'll put him in the record books with the all-time greats.

Levi didn't get that natural born athleticism on his own, Levi's dad Rob was a standout in football and wrestling for Caledonia in the early eighties, advancing to the state wrestling meet his senior year. He also led that team to it's sixteenth straight district title, an impressive feat in a long line of great Caledonia wrestling teams.

Ryan Pitts
, son of John and Maureen (Schmitz) Pitts, was Co-Offensive Player of the Year in the Three Rivers South Division. In my opinion, he was the best running back in all of southeastern Minnesota. Ryan took over crucial games when they were on the line, and put the team on his back. In the section title game against Chatfield he put up 139 yards and three touchdowns, and then pounded Sibley East for 168 yards in the state quarterfinals. He was also extremely versatile, playing running back, defensive tackle, linebacker, and kick returner. Ryan was mostly in the headlines for running the ball, but his most impressive play of the year was a 47-yard interception TD against Southland. He picked off the deflected pass with his fingertips, hit the sidelines, and turned on the burners all the way to end zone immortality.

To make elite football players, I believe you need elite genes, and John and Maureen Pitts gave those genes to Ryan. Maureen was an all-conference volleyball player for Caledonia, and also excelled on the basketball court as one of the best players on the team. John was involved in both football and wrestling in high school, but his greatest gift was the many years he served as a wrestling coach in the Caledonia wrestling program. He was one of my varsity wrestling coaches, and I never would have won an individual district title without his guidance and leadership.

Zach Kasten
, son of Rich and Sue (Schmitz) Kasten, was the defensive captain for the Warriors this year, leading the team with 122 tackles from his linebacker position. He didn't just lead the team in defense, he led this corner of the state as the best defensive player on the field. His crushing quarterback sack against Plainview started out the year with a bang, and his blocked punts and bruising play in the postseason triggered a state title run. Incredibly an injured back and a fractured elbow didn't slow Zach down a bit, as he garnered first team linebacker honors on multiple all-area football teams. His dominate play reminded me of another former Warrior defensive great, a guy named Karl Klug...maybe you've heard of him. If Zach can get healthy, he definitely has the size and skill to play major college football next fall if he wants to, I have no doubt about it.

To help Zach get to this point in his athletic career were his parents Sue and Rich Kasten. Sue was an outstanding athlete for the Warriors, playing both volleyball and basketball through high school. She was voted the most athletic girl in her class, and she led the volleyball team to an undefeated regular season, with their only loss coming in the district finals. Rich was a big part of the most famous football team in Caledonia, the 1976 state championship team. He started on the defensive line as a junior, a big feat in itself, as only a handful of juniors were able to crack the starting line-up. The Caledonia Argus reported that Rich played in the championship game with a cut on his big toe that required eight stitches just 6 days before. Now we know where Zach received that patented toughness from. To play the whole season with an injured back and a fractured elbow that didn't hinder his play, Zach is without a doubt a special athlete.

Kevin Lapham
, son of Wes and Carrie Lapham, was another connection to the 1976 state championship football team. Wes Lapham was a running back and linebacker on the team, and scored two rushing touchdowns in the championship game. He was quite the bruiser according to many of his teammates. They said Wes would rather run through you than around you. I guess that's the kind of toughness Wes instilled in his son, because Kevin was a hard-nosed two-way lineman that never came off the field. Kevin was Three Rivers South All-Conference, and honorable mention on the Associated Press All-State Team. He was consistently getting pressure on the quarterback from his defensive end position, and had key sacks in the games against Plainview and Chatfield. He crushed the quarterback from behind in the Southland game, causing the deflected pass that Ryan Pitts took to the house for a touchdown. Those are the kind of plays that don't show up on the stat sheet, but Kevin definitely showed up on film all year long.

Emma Lange
, daughter of Tim and Julie (Buege) Lange, was one of the best volleyball players in the state this season. Not only a great volleyball player, but a great all-around athlete, winning a state title in the high jump as a sophomore. Emma, a 6' 2" middle hitter, was on the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association All-State Team, along with the Class AA All-Tournament Team. Emma will be going to Division II volleyball power Concordia-St. Paul next year, one of the best volleyball programs in the country. The Golden Bears just clinched their sixth straight NCAA Division II volleyball championship. Emma's great height came from a combination of her mom Julie, who was a basketball player for Caledonia, and her dad Tim, a two-sport star for the Warriors. Another connection to the 1976 state championship football team, Tim "Toes" Lange was the starting center on the offensive line, and made the all-conference team his senior year. He was also a standout wrestler, representing Caledonia at the state meet two years in a row. From the sources I've talked to, whether it be football, wrestling, or even softball, Tim Lange was one of the best athletes in this corner of the state.

Taylor Winjum
, daughter of Jeff and Julie (Goetzinger) Winjum, was setter extraordinaire for the Warriors this season. One of the best setters in the state, she now holds both the single season and the career assist records for Caledonia. She was a team captain and landed first team all-conference honors, as well as being voted to the Class AA All-Tournament Team. Taylor is a multi-talented athlete, as she excels on the basketball court as well. Last season she was the Winona Daily News Girls Basketball Player of the Year, and this year the Warriors are currently undefeated and ranked sixth in state. Her dad Jeff Winjum was one of Caledonia's famed "Dirty Dozen" football players that played for Ron Moen in the mid-eighties. The Warriors won the Hiawatha Valley Conference in 1984, and returned the program to the state tournament for the first time in years. He was also a key member of the 1984 Leo Simon led wrestling team that fell to perennial power Staples in the championship of the state wrestling tournament. Jeff returned in 1985 and won the prestigious Bi-State Classic in La Crosse, as well as capturing a Region 1A individual title, advancing him to the state meet.

I need to squeeze in a quick Caledonia memory from the past before we get to our next Caledonia Warrior athlete. When I was a kid, I loved going to Veterans Memorial Field on Friday nights for the football games. I knew the great history of Caledonia football, and what they had accomplished on that field over the years. It was an incredible atmosphere, with the cars lined up on the hill and the fans scanning the sidelines, a lot more intimate than the Warriors new football field. Me and my buddies would play football in the grassy area behind the old press box, but eventually the cheers of the real game would draw me over. I squeezed between my parents on the sidelines and peeked over the fence to see this incredible Caledonia running back carrying the football. He was as smooth as Walter Payton, and had moves like Barry Sanders. My jaw just dropped, because I had never seen a high school football player that athletic. He had incredible speed as well - when he got into the open field it was goodbye, because nobody was going to catch him.

So, who was this incredible running back? The one as smooth as Walter...the one with moves like Barry?

His name - Carl Fruechte. If you don't know that name, you've been stuck under a rock for the last twenty years. He's a two-time state football championship coach. The Minnesota State Football Coaches 2008 Coach of the Year. He's the orchestrator of Caledonia's football program that just won it's fifth state title in the last six years. He's also the Caledonia boys track & field coach, and guided his team to the 2011 Class A state title.

Are you impressed yet? Wait until you hear about Carl's family.

Carl was a three-sport star in high school for Caledonia, and his wife Becky (Marnach) Fruechte was a volleyball and basketball player for the Warriors. Their daughter Alecia was an incredible athlete for Caledonia, earning 11 letters in four years, and played volleyball for Minnesota State-Mankato. Their son Isaac, also a three-sport star, was a member of the 2007 and 2008 Caledonia football state championship teams. He started at wide receiver for RCTC and impressed enough to earn a full ride to the University of Minnesota. He's currently a starting wide receiver for the Golden Gophers, and helped his team advance to the Meineke Car Care Bowl, their first bowl game in years.

The final member of the Fruechte family just finished her volleyball career for Caledonia as one of the best players in the nation. Maria Fruechte is a 5' 11" middle hitter that can jump out of the gym. She has a reported 36-inch vertical that anyone watching this years state volleyball tournament can verify is true. She earned a spot on the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association All-State Team, and the Class AA All-Tournament Team. Maria broke the Caledonia single season and career kills record, and was named the 2012 La Crosse Tribune Volleyball Player of the Year. She already signed her National Letter of Intent, and will play volleyball for Division-I Iowa State University next year. Not only great at volleyball, she's a standout basketball player for the Warriors, currently undefeated and ranked sixth in state. She also excels at track & field in the speed events, and qualified for the 2011 state tournament in the long jump.

As we roll into the new year, the Warriors can look back at 2012 as a great success. The state championship sign on Highway 44 added another year to the list, and the trophy case in the high school just got a little more crowded. But the questions from the Coulee Region remain. What's going on over there in Caledonia? How can they be that good?

There's no doubt Caledonia excels at high school athletics because of great facilities, first-rate coaches, and tremendous support from the community. To make championship caliber teams though, you need elite athletes, and Caledonia has continuously shown over the years that the cupboard is always full of familiar looking names. So if you're an elite Warrior athlete, you can thank your coaches and you can thank your teammates, but most of all you better look across the dinner table and say, "thanks Mom and Dad."

Photo courtesy of MSHSL.

Photo courtesy of MSHSL.