Stephen-Argyle's state record football winning streak safe for now after Caledonia loss
The Storm won 76 straight games from 2003 to 2007 and Caledonia's recent streak was snapped at 71 consecutive wins.
Former Stephen-Argyle football standout Matt Gratzek, now a 33-year-old living in rural Argyle, Minn., wasn't tracking high school football scores on a nightly basis by any means.
But last week, he learned Caledonia's 71-game high school football winning streak was snapped by Lake City, ending the nation's longest active winning streak and securing Stephen-Argyle's place as the No. 1 longest winning streak in the state.
The Storm won 76 straight games from 2003 to 2007.
"Someone in town at the local coffee shop told me," Gratzek said. "In small towns, that's how it goes."
Reaction from former Stephen-Argyle standouts wasn't exactly that of the 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins, whose living members notoriously popped champagne every time an NFL team fell short of an unbeaten season.
Perhaps, though, it was simply an opportunity to reminisce about the unique nature of the Storm streak.
"I didn't (follow Caledonia's streak) as much as some of the other assistants I worked with and some other local people," former Stephen-Argyle head football coach Mark Kroulik said. "I really thought they had a heck of a program. It was a surprise. If they broke it, I wouldn't have felt bad with a program like that rolling by us.
"It's still kind of surreal in the sense that you take it a season at a time. You don't always piece them altogether. We tried not to make a big deal of it at the time just because the kids didn't need that extra pressure for something that was not directly related to our target goals for the year."
Another former Stephen-Argyle standout, Blake Sczepanski, now a 32-year-old farmer in Stephen, had heard some talk about Caledonia challenging the streak.
"I didn't follow it but I saw (they lost) on Twitter," Sczepanski said. "I was aware they were close. The streak as you get older, it's a lot more impressive. Talking to buddies, it's quite the accomplishment ... just how hard it is to make the championship, let alone win it."
Sczepanski never lost in his career, while Gratzek did just once as a freshman in the state semifinals.
"As you get older, you realize it's more special than you do at the time," Gratzek said. "You're a high school kid, you're having fun with friends and winning football games and working hard. It's probably more special than you realize at the time."
Kroulik, who will be 70 years old in November, will be honored at UND's Potato Bowl game Saturday against Drake at the Alerus Center.
Kroulik is a Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer, leading Stephen-Argyle to seven state championships (1999, 2003-07, 2009). He'll receive the UND Coaches Award of Merit.
When Kroulik retired from coaching in 2009, he held a 168-12 all-time record as head coach.
"You have to have so many things fit together in the right way," said Kroulik, who still follows lots of area football including Clearbrook-Gonvick where his son is head coach. "We didn't try to make a big deal out of it. It was a positive motivator for kids to work out and get stronger because they didn't want to see it end, but we didn't want that kind of burden to set a record or make a streak.
"It was a little different every year. Some years we were physically dominant in the Gratzek years (Matt and his brother Kyle were standouts). You have a player like that and everyone follows. We had good depth, too. We had 80 percent of our boys play football. Some of those marginal sophomores followed the leadership of some really good leaders. (Nevin) Lubarski and Gratzek and those guys made them better so when they were seniors they were dang good high school football players. Success feeds on itself."
Sczepanski said commitment to the program was a key to the run.
"We always played for each other and no one person wanted to stand out," he said. "The team was always first, whether it was on or off the field. We were committed whether it was the weight room or practice."
Players also say Kroulik was a significant force in the streak.
"He knew the game very well, especially the defense," said Sczepanski, who played two years of college football at North Dakota State and two at Bemidji State. "He'd set up whoever we were playing against. He knew exactly where the play was going to go. We were prepared mentally. We respected him tremendously. He knew how to work with 16, 17, 18-year-olds. It was more than playing football; we had lots of other things on our mind and he mentally prepared everyone single player. When he told us something ... I wouldn't say we were afraid ... but we just respected him so much, we knew what he said was the right thing."
Gratzek, who played at NDSU from 2006-10, agreed.
"I think he was successful as a coach and other things in life because he knows how to treat and talk to people to get the most out of them," Gratzek said. "I give him a lot of credit for that. It's not one style of coaching or treatment. He has the ability to see on an individual level how that person needs to be approached."
If Stephen-Argyle's streak comes to an end some day, Kroulik won't be disappointed.
"It's not that important," he said. "I would take the memories working with the players and the section championships and the state championships ... those are bigger memories than the pieces of the streak."