Forty years later, the 1979 Redwood Falls football team will be remembered for ushering in a new era of Cardinal football. In just his second season at the helm, Head Coach Rick Ellingworth helped lead the Cardinals to the school’s first ever SWC Championship and a state playoff berth with a perfect 7-0 mark in league play.
The Cardinals earned a share of the title under Head Coach Dale Scholl during 1963 campaign – in just its second season as a member of the conference – but in 1979 would put together a magical run that would lead the program to five more first or second place conference finishes in the next eight years.
At the start of the season, the Cardinals were looked at as a potential dark horse but in reality were an underdog and were not predicted to finish ahead of teams like Pipestone, Slayton and Worthington.
In its opener, the Cards would face Tracy and used a strong defensive effort to thwart the Panthers 13-0. Defensive coordinator Dennis Stoterau’s boys allowed just 93 yards of total offense, and touchdown runs from Chad Johnson and Curt Schrank would be enough to secure the win.
In week two, the Cards faced state-ranked St. James and would lose a tough battle 19-16, as three fumbles and a pair of blocked punts proved costly in the loss. Schrank and Tim Wittwer would score on touchdown runs and All-State defensive back Jeff Weyer would record a safety and finish with 16 tackles in the loss.
In week three, the Cards picked up their second shutout of the young season, topping Windom Area 13-0, as the defense limited the Eagles to just 116 yards of offense. Wittwer scored on runs of one and 44 yards and would finish with 59 yards rushing. Quarterback Mitch Otto was 7-of-9 passing for 86 yards. Bryan Hagert would lead the defense with 16 tackles.
Week four was an early season showdown with defending SWC champion and seventh-ranked Pipestone Area at Memorial Field. The Cards would rise to the occasion on the way to a 27-12 victory, delivering a statement to the rest of the conference. The win ended the Arrows streak of 15 straight SWC wins. The Cards would take a 20-6 lead at the half on short touchdown runs from Schrank and Tom Zimmerman along with a touchdown pass from Otto to Kurt Hjerpe. A 2-yard run from Wittwer would up the lead to 27-6 in the second half and the Cards would cruise from there. The Cardinal defense forced three turnovers while not giving the ball up once. Wittwer finished with 82 yards rushing, Zimmerman added 65 and Schrank 53 for a balanced ground game. Weyer and Hagert each had 15 tackles, with Doug Kammerer and Mike Henning both picking up 13 in the win.
In week five, the Cardinals traveled to Luverne and would come away with a 20-14 victory to stay unbeaten in conference play and 4-1 overall. Trailing 8-7 in the fourth quarter, co-captain Mark McKay blocked a punt that was recovered on the Luverne 1-yard line by fellow co-captain Kammerer. Otto would then score on a quarterback keeper to give the Cards a 13-8 lead that they would not relinquish. Otto would finish with 63 yards passing, including a 17-yard touchdown strike to Tom Shepley, and Schrank would add another touchdown on a 4-yard run. Weyer had an eye-opening 19 tackles and McKay added 12 to lead the Cardinal defense. Zimmerman and Johnson had interceptions. Zimmerman would finish with 16 carries for 87 yards, and Shepley had four catches for 42 yards.
Week six was Homecoming for the Cards, and they once again would rally in the second half for a 22-14 win over Slayton. The Cards would trail 14-7 heading into the fourth quarter, but a 6-yard touchdown run from Zimmerman and a two-point conversion by Otto would give the Cards a 15-14 lead. Schrank would add a four-yard touchdown run for the final tally. Wittwer had a huge 80-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, as the Cards racked up 272 yards on the ground. Wittwer finished with nine carries for 109 yards. Zimmerman added 91 yards and Johnson 35 in the win. Weyer and Hagert would lead the defense with 12 tackles apiece, as the Cards allowed just 30 yards rushing on 33 attempts.
At 4-0 in the conference and 5-1 overall the Cardinals next opponent – Worthington – was supposed to give the Cards a game. That didn’t happen, as Redwood Falls dominated its way to a 40-0 rout of the Trojans on their home field. The Cardinal defense pitched a then school record third shutout and would score three defensive touchdowns, as McKay fell on a fumble in the end zone, Shepley picked up a loose ball and rumbled 28-yards for a score and Weyer added a 58-yard interception return for a touchdown. Zimmerman added a pair of rushing touchdowns, and Mark Erie took one in from 13-yards out as well.
The win would set up a battle with Marshall for a chance to secure at least a share of the conference title. The Cardinals would jump out to a 13-0 halftime lead on a 37-yard run from Schrank and a 4-yard reception from Otto to Zimmerman. Wittwer would put the game away with a 53-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth as the Cards would win 21-7. Johnson had key interception and Weyer would once again pace the lead the team in tackles.
The win also secured a spot in the old Class A state playoff format with one game to go. That game would be against Jackson, and the Cards would head into the postseason in style with a 33-0 drubbing of the Bluejays. The fourth shutout of the season broke a school record, and the 66 total points allowed during the season also was a new mark. Shepley scored on a pair of touchdown passes from Otto, and Wittwer, Zimmerman and Johnson all had touchdown runs. Weyer finished with 14 tackles and an interception, and Kammerer had a pair of fumble recoveries as the Cardinal defense dominated. The victory improved the Cardinal record to 8-1 overall and a perfect 7-0 in conference play (the first time in school history).
The Cards would face a tough St. Peter team – ranked second in the state at 9-0 – in its playoff opener. As marked underdogs, the Cards would go into the half at St. Peter up 3-0 on a 23-yard field goal from Zimmerman. The Saints would respond, however, in the second half, scoring 20 unanswered third quarter points to go on to win 34-3.
The Cards would finish with 158 yards on the ground led by Schrank with 76. Schrank and Kammerer would also pace the defense with 12 tackles. Despite the loss, the Cardinals would finish ranked ninth in the final Class A rankings in the old five class system.
In those days, teams like Apple Valley, Hutchinson, Brooklyn Center and Simley were all Class A schools.
Ultimately, the 1979 Cardinals will be remembered as a gritty group that helped establish the football culture at Redwood Falls for the next 20 years. The Cardinals would go on to capture the SWC title again in 1981, finished second to Marshall in 1982 and again in 1984, shared a portion of the title in 1986 and finished second to Marshall in 1987.
Ellingworth retired in 1989 with 68 career wins. Stoterau would take over following Ellingworth’s departure and lead the Cards to SWC titles in 1993 and 1994 and second-place finishes in 1992 and 1997 along with reaching the Section title game in 1992. He would retire after six seasons with 39 career victories.