Waukesha South Athletic Director Dan Domach said AJ Raebel will have a "calming effect" on the Waukesha South football program.
"His personality and style will fit the program well," Domach said.
Raebel, who was recently named Waukesha South's new head football coach to replace Dave Rusch, also brings a championship pedigree and knowledge of the school and program.
"He's ready to step into the position," said Domach, who added Raebel, a math teacher at the school, was one of six candidates brought in for interviews and one of three who had follow-up interviews.
Raebel, a two-time All-American linebacker at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, helped the Warhawks win the school's first national championship in 2007 during his senior season. His playing days ended after tryouts with the Minnesota Vikings and the Canadian Football League's Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2008.
Raebel, 30, then got into coaching and teaching.
He started his professional career as a defensive coordinator for the Janesville Craig High School football team, and was also an assistant at Waukesha South, serving under Rusch for one year, in 2012.
Most recently, he coached at the collegiate level for the last few seasons, serving since 2013 as the linebackers coach at Carroll University in Waukesha.
"He's really well-rounded," Domach said of Raebel's coaching background.
High school is home
Raebel said while he learned the "bigger picture" in how to run a program at Carroll University, he knew the high-school ranks is where he wanted to be long term.
"(Coaching at Carroll) was a great opportunity, and I learned how to better lead and manage," Raebel said. "But since I was in eighth grade, I always wanted to be a high-school math teacher and high-school football coach. The stars aligned for me, so it's really a fairy tale."
Before coming to Waukesha South to teach this past fall, Raebel taught within the district at the Waukesha STEM Academy for three years.
Domach said Raebel was the right choice to carry on the tradition that Rusch created for the past 24 years at South. Rusch, a physical education teacher at South, announced his retirement from coaching in December.
"He knows how to handle himself during the trials and tribulations," Domach said of Raebel and the coaching profession. "In our conference, the coach has to have a calming effect with our kids. He'll create the same type of relationship that Dave had with our student-athletes."
Raebel said he learned a lot from Rusch when previously coaching at South. Specifically, Raebel said that despite South finding it tough to notch wins on a consistent basis in the tough Classic 8 Conference, it didn't discourage the program.
"It was not what you'd expect from a program that experiences losing," Raebel said. "Everybody loved playing for Dave and working for him. It wasn't all about wins and losses. It's about helping improve their lives."
Rusch did this all while competing against schools that are much larger in enrollment than South and with more students on free or reduced lunch program than other programs.
"Dave is always there for everyone else but himself," Domach said. "It was always about his players or students at South, coaches, parents and alumni. Dave would do anything at any time for anyone at South."
South's demographics and his ability to improve students' lives actually drew Raebel to the position.
"I've been in the district for four years, and it's an exceptional community with great kids and great families," Raebel said. "It can be difficult, but that's what will make it more rewarding. There's a lot of desire to compete."
Being the best
Raebel said in order to further compete with the best of the best his team will be better in the offseason, involving a more complex offseason program.
"You hope that with a positive attitude you end up getting more players to join the program and get more community support," Raebel said. "And at the end, if we're working on bettering our bodies and making smart decisions on and off the field, then the sacrifices they'll make in the offseason, while still having fun, they'll see that it's worth it."
He hopes doing the little things in the offseason will then translate into more success on the field.
"If we only have three wins in a season, but one of them is a huge upset (over one of the traditional powers) and make teams compete against us for four quarters, than that would show them that all the pain and agony would be worth it," Raebel said.
Raebel knows a thing or two about overcoming pain.
Like Rusch, Raebel is a cancer survivor.
Raebel was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2009, one year after he graduated from UW-Whitewater. And like the Waukesha South community did for Rusch when the school rallied around him in early 2014 after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, the Whitewater community and university also rallied around Raebel, who was very well-respected in the program and across the Division III football landscape.
Last November marked the five-year anniversary of the moment Raebel was deemed cancer-free. He said the primary concern now are long-term effects from the chemotherapy treatments he went through in his mid 20s.
"The cancer is gone but other health issues could arise, so I have to make sure to keep my weight down and watch my cholesterol," Raebel said.
Raebel also said due to the cancer there was some uncertainty about whether he and his wife, Lissa, would be able to have children. But they defied the odds, as Raebel and Lissa welcomed a baby boy named Elias into the world last April.
"All things considered that I went through," Raebel said, "we realized how lucky I was."