A perfect match: Zortman named All-Suburban Coach of the Year

Led Messmer/Shorewood to playoff berth

Nov. 29, 2011

Shorewood - It can be safely said that 2011 NOW Newspapers All-Suburban football Coach of the Year Drake Zortman of Messmer/Shorewood is a flexible man.

How could he not be after a season like none other in recent history?

The bottom line is, is that Zortman, behind the motto "We are change," got the Greyhounds believing in themselves, going 4-5 overall and earning their first WIAA state playoff berth in 30 years in the process.

In doing so, he changed the culture of the program, which has had a revolving door of coaches and philosophies for pretty much the last 20 years which led to little continuity and only sporadic success.

"It's always been about the kids, and not about me," he would say over and over again.

He made sure of that in the first meeting with the senior leaders in late June/early July shortly after he was hired. It was a group he had asked both administrations to help him put together.

He gave them his background (successful assistant stints with the Homestead, Whitefish Bay and Nicolet football programs; conference championships won with the Homestead girls basketball team) and then he opened it up to questions.

"The first thing they asked me was," he said, "'What are we going to do with guys who don't come to practice?'"

"I told them that they would most certainly not play on that particular Friday and then after that, it was up to them to figure out what they wanted done.

"Simply put, I was looking at these six kids and I told them that if they gave me a commitment to come to practice everyday and work hard we might have something going."

They eventually did, but how Zortman got into that room with those athletes may someday be the source of legend. At the end of the 2010-11 school year, he had been teaching at Homestead (math and statistics) for 13 years, ever since his graduation from Carroll University in Waukesha.

He had been married for seven years with two happy, exuberant children (Grace 5 and Lee 2) but he also had an itch he just couldn't scratch.

"I needed a change," he said. "A new challenge."

So all he did was interview for the coaching job at the biggest football challenge in the state. And he took a unique approach to it. Listen to Shorewood Athletic Director Bill Haury describe how the selection committee's meetings with Zortman went.

"The key for us was for someone to have a presence in both buildings," said Haury. "We'd had non-staff coaches for years (in football and in other sports), but with football we felt we needed someone in the buildings.

"It was easy to be here (at Shorewood) at the end of the day where the practices were and where the games would be played, but Messmer always felt short-changed in this arrangement. They didn't feel the connection. Their question to him: 'Could he be a presence here (at Messmer)?'"

"And it was him who suggested the idea."

Which was that Zortman would teach in the mornings at Messmer and then hike down Capitol Drive to Shorewood to work there in the afternoons.

"I said in a perfect world, that's what I would like to see," he said, "and amazingly, they made it happen."

And how has the Messmer aspect of it worked out? Zortman has an easy answer for that question.

"I sort of work security (at Messmer) on Capitol Drive at 7:30 each morning as the kids are coming in," he said, "and they walk by me and say 'Hey coach!', 'Morning coach!' 'What are we doing today in practice, coach?'"

"And I would answer them, 'Getting ready to win.'"

Which they did. The Greyhounds trailed 20-12 to Brookfield Academy at the half in their first game but then scored 20 unanswered points to win 32-20.

"Later, as we got deeper in the season and we'd had a few ups and downs, I kept looking for that signature win, that big win," said Zortman, "and it was Dave (his old boss Homestead football coach Keel) who told me that I had gotten already it. 'It was that one (against Academy),' he told me.'"

That Zortman was able to get his point across so quickly to his players came as no surprise to the three-time state champion, state hall of famer Keel.

"He relates so well to every type of young athlete," said Keel of Zortman. "He understands what's important. That school comes first and that honesty, integrity and character are everything. From a coaching standpoint, his attention to detail is just terrific.'"

"…This was a challenging situation he walked into and all the attention was on him. He took it head on and did a terrific job."

Zortman said that there were enormous challenges he faced working with this program. Things he had never endured before in his 13 years of coaching. And in dealing with all of them, he became the center of calm in an occasional storm of events.

The first major event happened before a mid-season game. The teams were there and ready, it was a beautiful night, only no officials had been scheduled so no game could be played.

"I had never seen that before," he said. "The kids were so disappointed. Initially, we tried to reschedule it but we (both sets of coaches) realized that we had to move on, that we had other games to prepare for. So we did."

And then his public persona became magnified in the whole October legal battle with the WIAA as to whether the football team was indeed eligible for the state playoffs (the decision came down in favor of the Greyhounds).

"We needed him out there (in court), and he agreed," said Haury. Zortman later joked, the proceedings took so long that he almost ran out of shirt, tie and jacket combinations.

"There were pitfalls that I just couldn't have imagined," said Zortman, "but like I told my friend Brian (first-year University School coach Sommers), 'If it was going to be easy, it wouldn't be any fun.'"

And that all led to that evening in late October at Pulaski Stadium, after the historic first-round playoff loss to Riverside. The energetic Greyhounds were outclassed by the eventual state semifinalists but had acquitted themselves well.

Zortman was thinking of what to say to the team when Joy Bretsch, one of Messmer's Athletic Directors, called him over.

"All I wanted to do was see my wife, my kids and talk to my players," Zortman said. "But she said the (WIAA qualifying) plaque had come in this afternoon and wouldn't I like to show it to the kids. So, she pulled it out of the box and handed it to me. I had about 40 yards (to the team huddle) to put it (what he was going to say) all together.

"It was one of those situations where no preparation worked out best.'"

He held up the plaque and talked to them about the 18 or so seniors who had committed to the program and how they had lived up to the 'We are change' motto and how it is going to be their names that will be attached forever to the little gold bar that says '2011' on it.

In short, it was exactly what he wanted to say to the team and it summed up the season perfectly.

Haury and Messmer officials couldn't have been happier with the outcome.

"He was ready to handle his own program and he did it with great balance," said Haury. "He knew coming in that his team was not going to be the end-all and be-all here. That he would have to share athletes. He just created a different dynamic. He was motivated and involved and he understood what his place was."

And now it just may be home.

"I'm a firm believer that things happen for a reason," Zortman said. "I'm a religious man but be it faith or karma or whatever there was a reason why I was here in June (for the interview).

"Now I believe I'm in the right place, where I need to be."

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