Soccer is a big part of Mark Polebitski’s life, but that wasn’t always the case.
The Waupaca High School computer science teacher’s three children – Ian, Austin and Joanna – participated in the Waupaca Soccer Association’s youth program in the 1980s and that became his introduction to the sport.
Polebitski is stepping down as the school’s boys’ soccer coach after 15 seasons, seven conference championships, six sectional appearances and more than 250 wins,
“We got a bunch of kids who wanted to play soccer,” said Polebitski, who organized a club team at the school that first competed in 1989 before soccer became an official varsity sport seven years later.
“We organized on our own to begin with,” he said. “The kids would drive their own cars to the away games and had to play for their uniforms. Basically, we had to do everything. It was a bunch of kids who came out for the love of the game. They had no support from the school and no respect from their peers. We would get 10 people at a game and they would all be parents. Some of the parents probably didn’t even know that their kids were playing soccer.”
Polebitski coached the club team for six seasons and a junior varsity squad in 1995 before the school’s first-ever soccer team hit the field for the first time in 1996.
A girls’ varsity team followed in 1997.
“In the early- to mid-’90s, the Waupaca Kickers put a formal proposal together to make soccer an official varsity sport,” Polebitski said. ‘In 1989, there were 500 kids playing in the WSA. Because it was so popular, there were a lot of parents inquiring about a high school team and that’s how it got started.”
Success didn’t come right away. The Comets were 7-14 in 1996 and 9-10-2 the following season. However, the Comets were 18-2-2 in 1998. That began a string of winning seasons that continued until last year.
The 1998 team was one of Polebitski’s most memorable, he said.
“This was the first Waupaca Kickers traveling team that made it to high school,” he said. “They played together since middle school and we probably graduated 15 or 16 seniors that year that had played together. All the teams that were successful were from that mold: they had played together.”
While his players were getting used to high school competition, Polebitski was learning the ropes as well.
He didn’t know anything about the sport until his children began playing.
“I went and got my coaching license and I was really a student of the game,” Polebitski said. “I watched a lot of teams play. Through observation, I would see what kids would do that was right. That was a situation I was in.
“Because I had to teach myself, it was not second nature to me,” he added. “I had to figure out a way that I could explain it to somebody else. It’s kind of how a teacher teaches a class. The things I struggled to learn were the easiest things to teach and the things that came easy to me were the most difficult to explain.”
He said his best players over the years included John O’Keefe, the Comets’ first all-state player; teammates Justin Blackburn and Jeff Dehnel; and brothers Cole and Logan Rathjen.
“They were dominant forwards,” Polebitski said. “When you think of a forward that can change the makeup of a team, each one of these guys was a player like that.”
He estimated that 15 of his former players – including seven from the 2002 squad alone – went on to play college soccer.
“These teams that stayed together knew the team aspect of the sport,” he said. “They understood how their teammates were going to defend as a group. Those were the successful teams. In the early years, we had to focus on athletic players because the skill wasn’t there The main reason for the success was definitely the youth programs of the WSA and the Waupaca Kickers.”
Among Polebitski’s accomplishments are seven conference championships, seven with the Mid-State Soccer Conference and one with the Valley 8 and Eastern Valley conferences.
Although the Comets never advanced to state, their best chance probably came in 2001. Waupaca won a Division 2 regional championship and faced eventual state champion Green Bay Notre Dame in sectional semifinal in Shawano.
“That was the year we lost to Notre Dame 1-0,” he said. “Nobody scored a goal on Notre Dame in the whole tournament and they goal they got was a fluke goal.”
The Comets also made sectional appearances in 1997, 2001, 2003 and 2004.
“Polo was by far the best coach and mentor that I met in high school,” said Jake Overman, a senior on this year’s team and a first-team all-conference selection. “He always emphasized hard work on the field, even if it meant running us hard. There were always moments when you would feel like a star when Polo patted your back or give you a word of approval. Even when we lost, Polo found a way to say the right thing, making us want to get back on our feet and fight every second of the next game.”
Although Polebitski is stepping down from the boys’ program, he’ll still coach the girls’ team.
“It’s difficult to be a varsity coach for two sports,” he said. “It takes an enormous amount of time and energy. Being a varsity coach doesn’t end when the season ends. I still have the enthusiasm, but it’s the energy that makes it different.”
Polebitski missed most of the boys’ season after undergoing cancer surgery in September.
“At first, I wanted to stick it out until my grandkids got here, but then reality set in and I’d be coaching well into my 60s,” he said. “The good news is I’ll have time to work with them in the youth program now. That’s where I can use my talents. It’s not that I’m stepping aside from soccer, I’m just rechanneling what I do.”
“Not only did he get soccer going for the school, he’s the only coach we’ve had and he’s been very influential in the youth program,” WHS athletic director Carl Eggebrecht said. “He’s been a good ambassador for the high school and youth programs. He had a lot of influence in making the program grow and he takes a lot of pride in what he’s done.”
“Soccer really became a family affair for many Waupaca families from the Rathjens to the Wantys, Groths, Holmans, Brogaards, Rasmussens and the list goes on,” Polebitski said. “It was a pleasure to see the passion of soccer live on from one sibling to the next and eventually from one generation to the next.
“I am proud of the high school soccer program, where it came from and where it will eventually go,” he added. “I am proud of what it meant for so many players and families in the Waupaca community and I am grateful for the commitment from past and current community members that grew this program. To all the team parents, coaches and soccer board members, thank you for your efforts. Without you, we would not be where we are today.”
“I am sorry for all those incoming players who will not be able to experience Polo’s teaching,” Overman said. “His coaching is something for the history books. Polo always told us dreams can come true, but only if you work hard and have the heart to make them come true.”