Humble attitude, hard work earn Baker coach of the year

Second-year coach leads team to state finals

Nov. 27, 2009

Menomonee Falls — A good leader knows when he needs some help and so when facing the biggest moment of his young career with the WIAA State Division I championship game against Marquette, Menomonee Falls football coach John Baker knew he needed a calming influence, so he went to the well.

"I talked to (Kimberly coach) Steve Jorgensen for about 45 minutes (the night before the game), and he walked me through it, what we should do, how we should handle certain things," Baker said of his old prep coach back from Baker's days at Oshkosh North. "He's who I go to whenever I have a question."

Baker learned at the knee of Jorgensen in the 1990s, hanging around the coaches room, watching game film, absorbing how he handled players, staff, family and friends and working in the youth camps.

Jorgensen, who moved on to Kimberly some years later, just happened to be preparing his Papermakers team for a try at a third straight Division 2 championship (they came up short against Waunakee), when Baker called, so Baker's influences, it can be said, are prescient and know what they're talking about.

Baker has obviously learned well from people like Jorgensen, as he was recently named NOW Newspapers Coach of the Year after leading the Indians to a 12-2 record and a berth in the state Division 1 finals, where they lost to Greater Metro Conference rival Marquette, 7-0.

It was a remarkable run for the second-year coach, whose team had not made the playoffs since 2005 and not made it to the state finals since 1985.

"I'm just sitting back trying to absorb it all," he said last week. "Things go by so fast. You sit down to organize your first practices and the next thing you know, you're at Camp Randall Stadium (for the finals).

"I tell you, it's been a bit of a delayed reaction for me."

Attitude rubs off on players

One can easily explain that attitude for the man who has said often this fall, "that he is only a small piece of the puzzle," and whose abiding coaching philosophy is of treating players with respect and of teaching them "how to be leaders so when the time comes, they can lead themselves."

That attitude rubbed off on the team and the four players who also earned NOW Newspapers All-Suburban honors themselves. They included running back and Player of the Year Cole Myhra (see separate story), defensive back John Cording, kicker Kyle French and linebacker Tony Nelessen.

"He's very focused in practice," Myhra said. "It's high tempo. You get in there and get the job done. Get it done quick and right."

Getting it right has been an obsession of Baker's since he took over for Bob Vitale two years ago. He knew he was just the latest in a powerful line of Falls coaches dating back to when North and East recombined in the fall of 1984.

"Jim Jeskewitz (state hall of fame selection), Pat Cerroni (now head coach at UW-Oshkosh) and Vito (Vitale, now an associate principal at Falls and defensive coordinator at Catholic Memorial). I owe a great deal to these men," Baker said. "It makes what happened this year extra special."

"He's old school," said Vitale, who was hired on staff the same year as Baker in 1998.

But Baker's also a firm believer in delegating authority, endlessly praising assistants like offensive coordinator Jamie Doyle and defensive coordinator Jeff Waggoner (who played for Jeskewitz and who worked with Cerroni and Vitale).

"John really promotes the team concept," said Waggoner. "That we all work together, offense, defense and special teams."

It was a trait that brought everyone into the circle this season after a disappointing 4-5 2008 campaign.

"No one's skeptical now," said Nelessen, a four-year letter winner, who also played for Vitale. "Now all of us have bought into what he's saying. We're all on the same page and that's made all the difference in the world."

Constantly learning, compassionate

It's something Baker learned from his roots. Not only from Jorgensen, but people like the late long-time UW-Platteville legend (where Baker went to college) George Chryst and Oshkosh people like basketball coach Frank Schade and long-time Oshkosh North assistant John Cameron.

"They all told me to work hard at what you do," Baker said. "Have compassion, have heart. You watch people like them and they're coaching all the time, no matter what they're doing. They just have great composure.

"I've learned from them that we can all learn from one another."

An attitude that was clearly not lost on his players.

"His determination and dedication really show through," said Cording. "… We all love him. He's definitely the primary reason we're where were at. He's a head coach who knows what he's doing."

Badger recruit French agrees.

"He pushes everyone to get better at everything they do," said French. "To succeed not just as athletes but as people, too. We respect him a great deal for that."

A season to remember

Indians football team second in state; John Baker named Coach of the Year

Final record: 12-2 (ties 2004 team for most wins in a season)

Scoring: 367 points scored (26.2 ppg.); 148 allowed (10.6 ppg.).

Individual leaders: Rushing: Cole Myhra 306 attempts, 1,765 yards, 22 TDs; passing: Max Poeske 79 completions in 160 attempts, 8 TDs, 5 interceptions, 1,284 yards; receiving: John Cording 17 catches, 245 yards; Korey Kleinhans 15 catches, 210 yards, 3 TDs; Conor Cassidy 12 catches, 227 yards, 1 TD; and Matt Widule 10 catches, 277 yards, 4 TDs; tackles: Tony Nelessen 109, Joe Henningsen 108.5, Richie Franz 92.5, Bobby Nelessen 78.5, Carter Ypma 72, Cassidy 66.5.

Seniors: Cassidy, Cording (co-captain), Kyle French, Andrew Warden, Henningsen (co-captain), Ben Jarolimek, Poeske (co-captain), Tony Nelessen, Jon Smaglick, Jeff Wilkins, Marshall Lund, Nick Zeman, Ypma, Ryan Furrer, Myhra (co-captain), Widule, Franz, Isiah Hargrove, Nick Held, Kenny Nwonye, Drew Menne, Adam Chudy, George McKinnon, Tony Guagliardo, Kleinhans, and Zak Peters.

Quote: "The whole community came together. The elementary schools, the middle schools, former players and graduates. (Former Principal Richard P. Woosencraft) Woos said he saw people there (at the championship game) that he hadn't seen in 25 years." -Baker

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