Don Soderberg was Hall of Fame coach in basketball, football
Portage County Gazette
By John Kemmeter
Former longtime Pacelli High School coach Don Soderberg died Thursday, Nov. 21, at the age of 80.
Soderberg coached at Pacelli from 1971 to 1997, and was a Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Hall of Fame inductee after serving as the Cardinals’ boys basketball head coach, and was also inducted into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association (WFCA) Hall of Fame after his career as an assistant coach for the Pacelli football team.
“He was a tremendous coach,” said Pacelli athletic director John Raflik. “I had the honor and the privilege of playing for him for four years in football and two years in basketball, and I also got to coach with him for a couple of years, as well.
“As a player, there were times where you really didn’t like him, because he was tough on you and he demanded the best out of you, and he did get the best out of most, if not all of his players,” he said. “But he was also the type of coach that you appreciated him afterward. He definitely made me into the person that I am today.”
“The intensity is probably the biggest thing that stands out,” said Nick Brilowski, who played football for Soderberg on Pacelli’s 1995 State Championship team and later served as an assistant coach with him in football. “He wanted the best out of the people that he coached, and he had high expectations for everyone.
“He could be demanding and tough,” he said. “But it came from a place of wanting the best. Wanting what was the best for you, and for the team.”
A native of Thorp, Soderberg was an assistant football coach at John Muir Junior High School in Wausau under WFCA Hall of Fame coach Win Brockmeyer from 1961-64, and spent one season as the football head coach at Auburndale High School in 1965, before he moved on to Marshfield Columbus High School, where he was the boys basketball head coach from 1966-67 through 1970-71, and was an assistant coach in football under WFCA Hall of Fame head coach Walt Kroll from 1966 to 1970.
Soderberg joined the coaching staff of the Pacelli football team in 1971, where he was the offensive coordinator for WFCA Hall of Fame head coach Bob Raczek, and took over as the boys basketball head coach for the 1971-72 season.
In basketball, Soderberg guided the Cardinals to the WISAA State Tournament five times during his first 10 seasons as the head coach, including three in a row from 1979 through 1981, and was often animated coaching on the sideline.
“I would like to sit quietly during a game and be completely relaxed,” Soderberg told the Stevens Point Journal in 1981. “But you don’t go through the intense preparations we do, to go into a game with a blasé attitude. I have to coach the way I feel.
“I honestly don’t think about how I look, how red my face gets or how loud I yell,” he said. “It would be a mistake for me to be sitting there worried about what people in the stands are thinking. If a person can coach passively, God bless him. But I can’t, it’s not in my nature.”
“Don can get the absolute most out of the talent his teams posses,” then-UWSP men’s basketball head coach Dick Bennett told the Stevens Point Journal in 1981. “He’s seldom had a team that has not lived up to its potential. Like so many outstanding coaches, he never gets the recognition he deserves.”
The Pacelli boys basketball team won the Central Wisconsin Catholic Conference (CWCC) Title six times during Soderberg’s first stint as the team’s head coach from the 1971-72 through 1982-83 seasons, as he was named the CWCC Coach of the Year five times, and led the Cardinals to a State Runner-up finish in 1981.
He served as the Pacelli boys basketball coach again from the 1990-91 through 1996-97 seasons, and took the Cardinals to the WISAA State Tournament for the final time in 1996, as they won 15 games in a row to reach the Division 2 State Semifinals, before he retired from coaching in 1997.
Outside of two years as an assistant coach for the UWSP football team in 1983 and 1984, Soderberg served as the offensive coordinator for the Pacelli football team from 1971 through 1997.
The Cardinals finished as the WISAA State Runner-up in 1972, and went on to win the WISAA Class A State Championship in 1986 with a 13-3 win over Waukesha Catholic Memorial.
The Pacelli football team also had WISAA State Runner-up finishes in 1989, 1992 and 1996, and won the WISAA Division 3 State Championship in 1995 with a 28-0 victory over Manitowoc Lutheran.
“To play for him was great, and then getting the opportunity to coach alongside of him for a year, you saw it from a different side,” said Brilowski, who later took over as Pacelli’s offensive coordinator when Soderberg retired. “What made him such a great coach was the preparation and the attention to detail, and you saw that preparation first hand.
“You saw why Pacelli was so successful for so long, he came up with things that really worked well,” he said. “And it was just trying to uphold that Pacelli tradition that he helped set.”
Soderberg also worked as a teacher and administrator at Pacelli, and was instrumental in the start of Pacelli Panacea.
During his career at Pacelli, Soderberg coached his four sons Brad, Jeff, Kurt and Scott, and was inducted into the Pacelli Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000, alongside his son Brad.
He was also inducted into the WBCA Hall of Fame in 2000 and the WFCA Hall of Fame in 2003, and is one of the few coaches in state history that is in both.
When Soderberg joined the WFCA Hall of Fame in 2003, he noted that the highlights of his career included coaching many terrific young men and being associated with a number of outstanding coaches, and that his most significant memory (and honor) was coaching his four sons in football and basketball.
“I watched how he coached, and I’ve tried from then on, to coach as much like him as possible,” said Raflik. ”I went to his funeral mass (Monday), I saw a lot of former players there who probably had the same thoughts that I did, didn’t really like the guy a lot when you played because he was so demanding, but definitely appreciated it.
“And you could see by those guys showing their respects there,” he said. “He was a great and outstanding coach, and also an outstanding person.”
“I just have the utmost respect for him, and what a great family man he was, as well.” said Brilowski. “When you think of the Mount Rushmore of Pacelli sports, he’s definitely on it, he’s right there with coach Raczek.
“Those are the two big ones you think about,” he said. “It’s a big loss for Pacelli, and he’ll definitely be missed.”