DARLINGTON — So happy were they that one of their freshman classmates — the emerging Alex Erickson — was going to make his varsity football debut for Darlington in the 2007 season-opener at Platteville that Bryan Reichling, Tucker Wiegel and some of their friends were inspired to show it.
"We actually went to the first Platteville game with body paint on," Reichling, the Redbirds' senior center, recalled recently. "We were pretty excited for him."
It was an inauspicious beginning for the Redbirds' future standout. Erickson played exclusively in the defensive secondary for the first few games of that season and, that night, his friends watched a team coming off a 2-7 season lose again 27-14 .
But now, at the end of their prep football careers, Erickson and his classmates can look back to that night as the debut of a class that would restore Darlington's football fortunes to nearly the level of success the school enjoyed from the late 1980s through the late 1990s.
With Erickson back for his fourth year at quarterback, the Redbirds soared through the regular season unbeaten, averaging 47.6 points per game — usually without the foot on the second-half accelerator.
They pushed their way through two prep football giants — Lancaster and Stratford, two programs with a combined 14 state finals appearances — and took out 2009 state runner-up Arcadia to start the WIAA Division 5 playoffs before they were finally derailed 35-14 in the state semifinals by eventual champion Brillion.
"Four years; you don't think they go that fast," said Erickson, whose arm and legs accounted for nearly 2,500 yards of offense in a 13-1 season — tying the school record for most wins in a season — and earned him Wisconsin State Journal 2010 All-Area Football Player of the Year honors for small schools.
"That first game at Platteville, freshman year. And then, the next thing you know, you lose in the (state semifinals) and it's gone by just like that. It's hard to grasp; it goes by that fast," Erickson said.
Still, Erickson remembers that first night like it was yesterday and how his friends might have been more excited for his opportunity than he was.
"We ran out for warm-ups and I looked up to the stands and there those guys are with (chests painted): ‘Go Alex' with No. 23, because I was No. 23 my freshman year," said Erickson, who changed to No. 3 as a sophomore. "It was fun seeing those guys. We grew up pretty fast."
As memorable as that first season was for Erickson - he got the call at quarterback two weeks after the Platteville loss in a 48-0 win over Boscobel and got to play behind a line anchored by his brother Mitchell - it ended with a 3-6 record. After 19 straight seasons of postseason football in Darlington, the Redbirds were forced to be spectators for the second year in a row.
Fortunes started to change in 2008, when Darlington used a 29-28 overtime win over Southwestern — the previous year's Division 7 state runner-up — in Week 7 to get back into the playoffs.
But there was a defining moment early the next season, when Wiegel — among the first members of this year's senior class to join Erickson on the varsity already as a sophomore — got his first start in the 2009 season-opener at Platteville.
"The very first play was to me, and I remember in the huddle him saying to me: ‘Just be relaxed; the ball is going to you,'" Wiegel said of an option play to the left. "He's like ‘I'm going to option it to you and you run like heck. I know you will score; you will score.' And, sure enough, I did it — first play of the season, 74-yard run."
Together, Erickson, Wiegel and their senior class went on to win 23 of their last 26 games. They looked virtually unbeatable this season — Erickson ran for 1,239 yards and 22 touchdowns, threw for 1,233 yards and 13 TDs and was the last line of Darlington's defense at free safety — as they matched their 1996 and 1997 state runner-up teams for the most wins in a season.
"He pushed us everyday," Reichling said of the guy to whom he snapped the football. "I thought of him as the vocal leader and the leader of the team. He showed it through his play, but he also got guys pumped up and got you ready to go. ... He got his name in the paper, but he made all of us better by just pushing us to get there and to help him out."
Said Wiegel of Erickson, his best friend since the fourth grade: "Alex can do anything. That kid is so athletic and he's one heck of a player. Our school would not be the same without him."