‘Polo’ hangs up his soccer shoes
Coach started program in 1990s
By Greg Seubert
A familiar face will be missing from the sidelines at Waupaca High School soccer games.
Mark Polebitski, who started the school’s boys’ and girls’ soccer programs more than 20 years ago, coached his final game May 31, a 9-0 loss to Rhinelander in the first round of the WIAA girls’ state tournament.
It was the 891st game in a coaching career that included 22 varsity seasons with the girls’ team and 15 with the boys’ program.
“The program was the result of a dedicated group of parents,” said Polebitski, who retired at the end of the 2017-18 school year after more than 30 years as a computer science teacher at the school.
“It was a totally organized structure before I even got here in 1985,” he said. “I got involved with the (Waupaca youth) soccer board and a couple years later, I was president. The program grew from 150 participants to 500 kids playing in four years. After the program grew, parents were talking about a high school program. The Waupaca Soccer Association Board asked me to start a high school team.”
A new sport
The boys’ team became a varsity program in the fall of 1996, while the girls’ team played its first varsity schedule in the spring of 1997.
“It was relatively new because at that point, there was only one division with less than 100 teams in the entire state,” he said. “Many of the bigger schools had programs for a number of years starting in the early ‘80s. That’s kind of when the whole thing started in Milwaukee, Madison, the bigger cities.”
According to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees high school athletics in the state, the 2017-18 seasons included 275 boys’ teams and 255 girls’ teams.
“Most of the schools we played in 1996 were bigger than us because very few schools our size had soccer,” Polebitski said. “In the early days of the girls’ program, we played De Pere, West De Pere, Ashwaubenon, Pulaski, a lot of the Green Bay schools. A lot of big schools back then.”
Three of Polebitski’s children – Ian, Austin and Joanna – participated in the Waupaca Soccer Association’s youth program.
“I saw that as something that they would probably be doing in high school,” he said.
It didn’t take the boys’ program long to find success on the soccer field.
The 1998 team posted an 18-2-2 record.
“My son, Austin, was on that team and played goalkeeper,” Polebitski said. “That was kind of a breakout season for us. We just lost a playoff game and one during the season. The year before, we had a losing record, but we beat De Pere and they were No. 1 in the state. Everybody expected them to win the state the state championship. We knocked them off here in overtime during the playoffs.”
Polebitski’s teams went on to win several Mid-State Soccer Conference championships in a row starting in 1998.
Another big season came in 2001, but the season ended with a loss 1-0 to Notre Dame in a sectional final. That team finished 25-2-1.
“That was a very talented group of juniors and seniors,” Polebitski said. “Out of 54 boys we had out for soccer, 52 of them played summer ball in the offseason and that’s the reason that team was as dominant as it was.”
Polebitski coached the boys’ team from 1996 to 2010 and ended up with a 234-109-25 record.
Former coach Mat Lawniczak coached the Comets to a Division 3 regional championship in 2016. Waupaca advanced to a sectional final game, but fell 7-1 to Rice Lake.
“Not only did my grandson play on that team, I knew those boys very well because I coached them in the winter for many seasons over in Appleton at Soccer Heaven,” Polebitski said. “I knew what each one of them could do and it was fun to see them develop in the outdoor game with Mat as their coach. He really did a nice job getting those kids to that level. It’s certainly different watching it from the sidelines. It’s a lot more relaxing and to me, it’s lot more enjoyable to watch it from the fans’ side. You can just enjoy the game rather than analyze or think about the game.”
Polebitski said his boys’ teams didn’t compete for players with the Comets’ football team, which won state championships in 2006 and 2008.
“When you look at (former football coach) John Koronkiewicz’s accomplishments on the football side, they paralleled some of the success we were having on the boys’ side,” he said. “I never saw it as a competition. There might have been a couple of kids that would have gone either way, but I don’t think it affects it as much as people want to make it out to be.”
After getting the boys’ program off the ground, it was only a matter of time before a girls’ team would form at the school.
“I was coaching a co-ed game and a female player was running right in front of our bench,” Polebitski said. “She was probably about 110 pounds and a 210-pound kid just crushed her and ruined her knee. I said, ‘We need to start a girls’ program here. We cannot have these girls participating with boys who are out of control.’ I brought it up the next spring to (former athletic director) Carl Eggebrecht and he made it happen. It was a pretty easy thing to do.”
Polebitski’s girls’ teams posted a 244-193-53 record from 1997 to 2018.
The 2000 team came up one win away from a trip to state after losing to Plymouth in a sectional final.
“My niece, Liz Parent, missed a goal by 2 inches with a minute and 42 seconds left in the game,” Polebitski said. “They took the goal kick, went down the field, scored and ended up going to state. We were 1:42 from going to state.”
The Comets were back in the sectional finals again in 2013, but fell to Xavier 3-0 in Division 2.
Waupaca’s last winning season came in 2014 and the team posted only three wins in the last three seasons.
“We won a lot of playoff games and stayed above .500 for a long stretch,” Polebitski said. “It’s been tough the last couple of years, but you know what? They’re getting better.”
Several of Polebitski’s players went on to play college in soccer, including Katy Werginz, who spent four seasons at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
“She was an amazing player,” he said. “We could play an opponent and she could single-handedly take over a game and win it for us just on pure athletic and soccer ability. In the early days, we just had a rag-tag team of kids that we could get out there and we were actually winning some games.
“What I’m waiting to see is some of these players coach,” he said. “We’ll see how that spawns a new generation of soccer players.”
Both programs are going strong, according to Polebitski.
“I know the girls’ numbers are going to be much stronger next year,” he said. “I know they’re going to field two teams and I believe the boys are going to field three teams. It’s awesome to see this next generations of people in the youth program take over and the next generation of high school coaches that are taking care of the program.
“Some of these parents played in the youth program and in high school and the ones that stick around, I see them coaching out there,” he added. “They’re passing that down. That’s what it takes. It takes a group of people to make any organization successful. Whether it was that first season or the last season that I coached, it’s not really the wins or the losses, it’s the experiences you had with those kids. You get to see where they ended up when you run into the all the time. When we had the little presentation after my last home game, it really meant a lot to me to see all those kids out there and talk to me about their families, their careers, where they’re living. Soccer is still strong. There are a lot of tournaments in the summer. My grandson was just at a tournament in Verona this past weekend and there were 100 teams there. It’s pretty popular.”
Now that Polebitski’s coaching days are behind him, he can look back at his 40-plus seasons of coaching middle school and high school soccer in Waupaca.
“I have thought about that,” he said. “I certainly enjoyed my time and won’t have any regrets. Coaching was a good experience for me, but it’s young person’s thing to do. Even though I probably feel young, I can no longer go out there and demonstrate or show. I’d rather coach by getting involved. It’s fun to play with them and fun to be able to demonstrate and stuff like that.
“There are other things for me to do,” he said. “I really enjoyed all 43 seasons with the boys and girls, but I’m ready to move on.”