COLUMBUS — A dream season for the 1967 Scotus Central Catholic Shamrocks ended in a state football championship, but the campaign began on a bit of a sour note when more than 20 boys transferred out of the private school and into the local public school system.
But the exodus of boys in a dispute with the then-superintendent of Scotus, including several skilled linemen, left the Shamrocks’ cupboard of talent anything but bare.
“In the spring of 1967, about 25 boys left Scotus and went to Columbus High,” said Jim Puetz, who joined head coach Claire Stramel’s coaching staff as an assistant that year. “We still had some awfully good athletes.”
Scotus’ decline in boys enrollment was just enough to slip the private school down from Class B to Class C. The enrollment loss came so close to the start of classes in the fall that Scotus’ football schedule included nine Class B teams and couldn’t be adjusted to reflect a Class C slate of opponents.
“That’s why we were Class C and played Class B teams all year,” said Puetz, who took over the head coaching position from Stramel after four years and went on to claim two more state championships in 1984 and 1993.
The 1967 team was honored by Scotus on the 50th anniversary of its state title, which in the days before the playoff system was awarded by the Omaha World-Herald, during halftime of the Sept. 15 homecoming game against David City Aquinas at Pawnee Park's Memorial Stadium.
Among the leaders on that 1967 team that captured the school’s first football state championship were Bill Kosch, the late Joe Blahak, Mark McLaughlin and Frank Skorupa.
Kosch and Blahak anchored the Shamrocks’ offensive backfield, using their speed after taking handoffs from quarterback Ken Bater to hit gaps in opposing defensive lines opened by linemen McLaughlin and Skorupa.
“We ran the same I-formation offense as the Nebraska Huskers with a lot of isolation and option plays,” Puetz said. “We had a lot of success with it.”
Kosch and Blahak, who later starred for the Huskers and played in the 1970 "Game of the Century" against Oklahoma on coach Bob Devaney’s first national championship squad, also patrolled the Shamrocks’ defensive backfield.
The Shamrocks ran a 5-4 alignment with five linemen, four linebackers and Kosch and Blahak buttoning up the defensive backfield.
“People didn’t pass too much in those days,” said Puetz, noting that Scotus would often crowd the line of scrimmage to seal off running lanes and pressure the opposing offense.
“We were pretty tough,” the former Shamrock coach said.
The team’s schedule that season began with West Point Central Catholic, which Scotus blanked 20-0. Next up was a 51-6 beat down of Hastings St. Cecilia, followed by a narrow 13-7 victory over a tough Omaha Holy Family squad.
That squeaker was followed by a 46-7 triumph over Grand Island Northwest and 19-0 shutout of Wahoo Neumann. Scotus got by area rival Schuyler 27-13 but could only manage a 7-7 deadlock with longtime powerhouse David City Aquinas. That was followed by a 33-0 shellacking of Grand Island Central Catholic.
Scotus stood at 7-0-1 at that point.
Then came Omaha Cathedral, which Puetz called one of the top Class B teams in the state that year. Omaha Cathedral handed Scotus its first loss of the season on a cold night in Omaha, 33-12, then edged the Shamrocks 13-9 in a battle matching the winners of the east and west divisions of the Centennial Conference to close out the season.
The ‘Rocks finished 7-2-1 to earn the World-Herald’s nod and a Class C state title.
“Without a doubt, Omaha Cathedral was the best team we played,” Puetz said, adding that the now-defunct Omaha school was among the top-five Class B powers that season.
Scotus' roster of just over 40 players boasted five athletes — Kosch, Blahak, Larry Honke, Steve Wieser and Stanley Liss — who went on to play for NCAA Division I football programs.
Kosch, Blahak, Honke and Wieser played for the Huskers, while Liss suited up for the Colorado State Rams.
The 1967 squad also featured six sets of brothers: Terry and Bruce Ebner; Bill, Bob and Ray Kosch; George and Stanley Liss; Mark and Tim McLaughlin; Mark, Bob and Walter Lueke; and Frank and Joe Skorupa.
Kosch and Blahak were the linchpins of the ’67 team and Blahak was the spark plug of the Shamrocks’ 1968 return to Class B ranks.
“In 1967, we were a track team in shoulder pads,” said Bill Kosch, a fuels engineer for Nebraska Public Power District for 41 years after leaving the playing field.
“We had good speed from top to bottom on that team, that was our salvation,” he said. “We ran away from bigger, stronger Class B teams by running east and west instead of north and south.”
For the Huskers, Kosch played safety, earning honorable mention All-American honors in 1971, and was named All-Big Eight in 1970 and ’71, along with Academic All-American honors in 1971. Blahak was a three-year starter at cornerback, earning All-Big Eight honors twice and second-team All-American honors as a senior.
About 22 members of the 1967 title team were on hand to be honored during the Sept. 15 homecoming game.
The former Shamrocks were treated to a nail-biter, with Scotus leading late before second-ranked Aquinas squeaked out a 17-16 victory.
“It was wonderful,” Kosch said. “I was really looking forward to it ... I like to follow the hometown team.”
Kosch addressed the current team just before kickoff that night.
“They really put on a show for us. It was exciting,” he said.
The evening was a time to gather with former teammates and old friends, telling stories and recalling memories of that long-ago season and lasting relationships that were forged all those decades ago.
The former players, now in their mid- and late 60s, swapped stories and memories for hours down at the Knights of Columbus Hall after the homecoming contest.
Al Niedbalski of Columbus was a freshman on that team, learning a lot from his coaches and upperclassmen on the team while serving as somewhat of a tackling dummy during afternoon practices against the varsity players.
“I got my head beat in every day during practice,” laughed Niedbalski, who got into a few varsity games late “during mop-up time” after the regulars built a substantial lead.
The city man, who later got into the family insurance business, said playing against those teammates taught him a lot.
“We learned how to play the game,” said Niebalski, proud to point out that season's junior varsity squad played a four-game schedule in which they were undefeated, untied and not scored on.
“Those guys were a fun bunch,” said Niebalski, who “lifted a couple” with his long-ago teammates at the KC Hall last month. “To think that I was a part of that is something that I’ll always remember.”
Dave Placek, who runs Tweet’s Sport Shop downtown, was a sophomore offensive and defensive lineman on the 1967 squad. He remembers learning a lot about how to play football during that year’s successful season.
“I made some lasting friendships that year. I’m still close to the guys,” said Placek, who just likes to be known as one of the guys who tried to contribute to the team.
“It’s hard to forget about being a part of that championship team,” said Kosch.