Six-Eight-Eleven is a photo-essay project about small town high school football focusing on the small town football games and programs in the bypassed communities of Wyoming and Montana (mostly). Despite the decadence of American Football at the professional, college, and some high school levels, this body of work illustrates that there are still places in this country where football’s innocence is preserved and celebrated in a grass roots setting. This project commenced in 1997.
Driving north on I-15 out of Great Falls to attend the Class C Six-Man semifinal game between Valier and Westby-Grenora (MonDak), I can’t tell you how many times I thought to myself, “Geeze, I hope I got it right. That this is indeed where the game is going to be and this is the day it will be played on.”
This stretch of highway is somewhat of a geographical limbo. It feels a little alien—probably because it’s in close proximity to Canada. There’s a lot of yellow and white—the yellow of wheat field stubble and the white of snow. I always tell my graphic design students that if you want your graphic design to fail, use yellow and white because there’s really not much contrast between the two colors, and whatever message you try to convey, it’ll likely be lost. But oddly, it works up here in Montana’s hinterlands.
One of my goals for attending the game in Valier was to get an aerial (drone-based) shot of the football field and surrounding town. I arrived about 15 minutes before the kickoff, but—like no other time—the software for my drone insisted that I logon to my account before it could take off. However, because logging on requires some kind of internet connection, I was unable to successfully logon because I had only one bar of cell phone service. Needless to say, I was cursing madly about DJI (the drone manufacturer). Luckily, I also happened to have one of my toy-based drones along, so in desperation, I flew my lowly Syma drone (see image below). Although a reliable flyer it is equipped with a primitive system compared to the other. I didn’t have any kind of “FPV” (first-person view) on board for accurate positioning. So I could only spot the aircraft based on my observation from below and hope that one of the shutter clicks every five seconds recorded a worthy image. By the time I completed this “simple” task, the MonDak Thunder had already established a three-touchdown advantage. Lesson learned: like cameras, always have a backup drone too.
Although the battle of undefeated teams was a bust in terms of being a competitive game, I’m still glad I made the long drive (391 miles one way—my longest drive of the season) as I’ve never attended a game in Valier. Because the game was easily over by the half, with plenty of light still remaining in the day, I did something I rarely do—I left the game after halftime to answer the call from the cold and abandoned football fields in nearby Brady and Dutton. I had driven by them on my way to Valier and thought I should get some imagery from these two remote locations (for me) while I was in the neighborhood.
The school and football field at Brady are now abandoned, but on this particular sunny Saturday afternoon, the town seemed vibrant. The Brady Bulldogs once played six-man football on the field there. In the earliest years of six-man football play in Montana, Brady made its first appearance in the 1984 chipper but fell short to another Bulldog team—Moore. Then in 1996 and 1997 they appeared again in the title games, but never recorded a “W” as they lost to the Choteau County-juggernauts of Highwood (21-19) and Geraldine (56-26) respectively. As enrollments dwindled, the team and school were joined with nearby Dutton. And not long after that, Brady-Dutton co-oped with nearby Power to create an eight-man team—the Titans. Even after the unification, enrollments continued to drop in both schools, and now the co-op of Power-Dutton-Brady is at the end of its rope as a six-man team that commenced this season (2017).
Over Dutton Gridiron
Down the road from Brady, the football field and school in Dutton are still occupied. In the case of the gridiron, it appears to see at least two home games per year sharing the home schedule with Power. However, there are no lights in Dutton, so the Titan home games played there are on Saturday afternoons. As the shadows grew longer with the sun’s approach to the horizon (like Brady), Dutton seemed vibrant and glorious in this last light of the day.
And this… Just before leaving the game at the half, the announcer reported the score of other six-man semifinal between Bridger and White Sulphur Springs—a lopsided score in favor of Bridger. However, when I stopped for gas on the way out of town, one of the clerks at the convenience store indicated that the lopsided score was in favor of White Sulphur Springs. It was only much later in the day that I found out that it was indeed Bridger that notched the win.
And then I started getting a little excited, because I knew they’d be hosting the title game and Bridger is only a 45-minute drive from my home. Even with Daylight Savings Time vanquished, I should still get home before dark—a first for me on a title-game-day.
Football Footnote: What is it about the mascot “Titans” and football co-ops in Montana? Tri-Cities (Hobson, Moore and Judith Gap), Power-Dutton-Brady, and most recently Flint Creek (Drummond/Phillipsburg)… all Titans.
I know a majority of the populace out there see me as the guy who photographs six-man football, but as the title of this blog states, “Six-Eight-Eleven,” I have also been known to attend, photograph, and write about eight-man and eleven-man venues as well. When it comes to eleven-man, I typically gravitate to the smallest classes. In Montana, it’s mostly Class B games (and a couple of Class A game years ago), while covering 1A and 2A in Wyoming.
With that said, although I’ve never been to Forsyth for a game, the Dogies have never played in too large of a class for me to cover a game there. However, given their arrival to the eight-man level (down from eleven-man play this year), it seemed timely that I visit for one of their games this season.
And so, there I was for their first round playoff game against Choteau—another team, like Forsyth, from Class B that moved down to eight-man this year. As it turns out, Forsyth is the ideal distance for me to travel; just under one full tank of gas to get there in my not-so-fuel-efficient 1990 Ford F-150 (despite its 300-straight-six engine).
Because it was the last weekend in October, the weather was absolutely devine in Forsyth. I don’t know if it hit the 70° mark, but it was sunny and certainly in the 60s. So warm was it that some of the players were experiencing muscle cramps like those during the first games of the year when the weather is outright hot. However, the Forsyth team didn’t seem as prone to this condition. I spied a couple of the Dogie players drinking pickle juice. I had to ask. Apparently pickle juice is a good remedy in the prevention of muscle cramps. What would the marketing teams at Gatorade or Powerade make of this grassroots electrolyte insurrection?
When it came to the actual contest between Forsyth and Choteau, the Dogies assembled a strong argument for a title game appearance. I suspect they’ll advance to the semifinals and the championship game, but no one team is a sure bet this year. Choteau kept it close for almost two quarters, but late in the second quarter when it was 22-8 and the Bulldogs were threatening to make it 22-14, Forsyth picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown (“pick-six”), making it 30-8 at the half instead. The Bulldogs never recovered.
With all the Forsyth scoring going on, it’s band played several rounds of the Dogie fight song. And, like many high schools that “acquire” their fight song from some famous college, Forsyth’s fight song is Michigan’s “Hail to the Victors.” Had I closed my eyes, I could almost project myself into an Ohio State game where Michigan was kicking their ass. As a kid who grew up following the Buckeyes, it was a bit disconcerting in hearing that particular fight song over and over.
Now that Wibaux has moved down to six-man, one has to wonder if Forsyth is the new incarnation of “The Beast from the East,” or will Fairview have something to say about that.
It was the battle for the South, and even the mascot names provided a battle imagery—the Scouts vs. the Rangers. In this case it was the battle for Montana’s Class C six-man football Southern Conference. Grass Range-Winnett was paying a visit to Bridger to decide who would earn the number one spot heading into the upcoming playoffs. The last time I saw these two teams clash was in 2006 at Grass Range when both were competing in eight-man play. How things quickly change in Montana high school football.
* * *
When the weather is not cooperating or when I simply can’t psyche myself up for a long drive, Bridger is my go-to destination. Oh sure, there are other venues closer such as Meeteetse and Burlington, but for whatever reason I lean toward Bridger. Perhaps it’s the easy terrain of getting there and the lower elevation of 3,600 feet (compared to Meeteetse’s 5,751 feet)—meaning less likely to snow. And, unlike Burlington, they never play Friday afternoon games which is difficult to attend if I have a Friday afternoon class. At 57 years of age, I’m not much for driving at night either, so if I have to, I think returning from a Bridger Friday night game is easier on my aging eyes.
* * *
It was Bridger’s “Senior Night.” I was surprised to hear over the public address system that four of their senior football players were planning to attend Northwest College—my employer. I even called my division chair during the pregame ceremonies to share this unexpected news. I found out later that senior members of their esteemed volleyball team had a couple players heading for Powell as well.
* * *
I set up camp behind the east end zone, but I wasn’t alone. Two men where studying the field and the players with a little more attention than the casual spectator. As my camera was working on a time-lapse series, I walked over to them and said, “You guys are either reporters or scouts for another team.” When they looked up, they recognized me before I recognized them. It was the Geraldine-Highwood coaching tandem of Rod Tweet and Brandon Gondeiro. No doubt, they were in town to gather some information knowing there was a good chance they’d see one of these two teams in the second round of the playoffs. Later on it dawned on me that the two coaches were scouting the Scouts (of Bridger).
As it turned out, the game wasn’t as competitive as I thought it might be. Bridger shined brightly and made a statement by easily securing the conference’s number one seed to the tune of 49-14 over the Rangers.
* * *
The Scouts weren’t only brighter because of their talent and athleticism, but the new field lights made everything three aperture stops brighter than the old bulbs when I last photographed a game there. I asked a Bridger fan if they were indeed new and was told the lights were installed during the 2016 season. Yet, one more reason to keep Bridger as my default destination.
* * *
Jim Goltz is the principal at Bridger, but in another life, I first knew him as the assistant coach at Custer back in 2003. I managed to catch him running errands in his school golf cart before the big game. During the half, he invited me up to his office to see a print he had made from one of my drone shots last year over the school. And if that wasn’t flattering enough, he has since started flying a drone himself.
* * *
Maybe I’ll buy a little place in Bridger when I retire.
* * *
Staff Sergeant David Thatcher was the last survivor of the “Ruptured Duck” crew during World War II’s Doolittle Raid and was born in Bridger.
The Huskies and their extra goal post in Burlington.
Burlington, Wyoming is probably the most centrally located town of the Big Horn Basin. Yet, despite this geographical attribute, it doesn’t get much traffic because the only road that goes through the community is rather secondary unlike the other thoroughfares that pass through communities located on the fringes of the Basin.
Burlington weighs in with 288 residents according to the town limits sign as you enter. This count is in the “Goldilocks” region when it comes to supporting a six-man high school football team. But, there’s a lot of pride in Burlington which has allowed for this town to field an eleven-man team for years. But as mathematics go, even a town/school determined to play eleven-man football has to face the facts of dwindling enrollment numbers. So, last year, Burlington started playing six-man football and from the looks of things, there have been no regrets. According to head coach Trent Aagard, “I think the community is excited about six-man football. I hear a lot of positive response to it. They like the fast paced feel to it, and I think they like that we are playing teams that have similar size to us.”
They have a new football field (and track) at Burlington with permanent goal posts still spaced out for an eleven-man game (120 yards including end zones). For the six-man field, they have a portable goal post to designate the south end zone for the shorter-sized field. However, according to Aagard, the reason why the goal posts have not been permanently moved to the six-man field as of yet is, “We felt that we needed to wait and see what the state is going to do with us moving forward. I would imagine if it looks as though we will be in six-man long term, we will move it.”
Then there’s The Burlington Place (formerly the Burlington Bar). Four years ago Mike and Melissa purchased the bar and transformed it from just another watering hole in another tiny Wyoming town to a pub known throughout the Basin for its pizza and wide selection of beers. This might be the first time in a long time that people are driving to Burlington for something other than an athletic event or to visit a relative that lives there.
So, come to Burlington for great six-man football, and stay for the pizza and beer.
Like many of Wyoming’s smaller communities throughout the state, the town of Shoshoni has a new school these days. It opened for the 2016-2017 academic year with a complex that includes all grades on the same site (albeit different entrances for K-5 and 6-12).
The old school was built in 1937 located in the center of town included many add-ons. However, the new $38-million-school is out on the edge of the small town of 649.
There’s nothing glamorous about this dirty, little town that popped up in its middle-of-nowhere location around 1905. Perhaps it’s abandoned Main Street with its dilapidated store fronts is what most people remember when they pass through town today. Once famous for its milkshakes at the Yellowstone Drugstore, even that started fizzling out in 2002 upon being relocated where it eventually folded in 2012.
When we stopped off in Shoshoni during the total solar eclipse this past August, while having a cold one in the Lucky Five Lounge, my friend and I were educated by one of the locals regarding the rattlesnake den that was discovered on site during the construction of the new building. Even after the school was finalized and holding classes, rattlesnakes were turning up a little too frequently.
Although the rattlesnake news was nearly a year old by the time I arrived for the first home game of the season against the Lovell Bulldogs, I was ever-so-careful as I navigated the football field and the adjacent areas of the school.
As far as the game’s outcome with Lovell… it wasn’t close at all. The Lovell Bulldogs came into town and schooled the Wranglers on what it’s like to play a 2A team (Shoshoni plays at the 1A level). For years now, I have been anticipating Shoshoni joining the six-man ranks as it is the quintessential six-man football town in my mind, but somehow their enrollments continue to remain high enough to compete at Wyoming’s smallest class of eleven-man football.
On another football note as it relates to Shoshoni: Years ago I was told by a colleague that the Left Tackle Bar on the east end of town as you head toward Casper was started by a former NFL football player (who played left tackle), but even in the age of Google, I’ve never been able to verify that account.
It was just another ordinary regular-season game between foes that see each other nearly every year on the gridiron, but there is nothing ordinary about the travel arrangements for the visiting team when it comes athletic contests between Rocky Mountain and Cokeville High Schools. In this case, Cokeville made the journey to Cowley for its fourth game of the season against Rocky—a rival in the same conference. When you think of teams within the same conference, you probably think of relative close proximity. Even in Wyoming, that distance can be easily over 100 miles. A two-three hour drive to any game is not unusual. But for Cokeville, almost every road game is an adventure.
It’s 230 miles as the raven flies from Cokeville to Cowley, but with major mountains serving as obstacles between the two small communities, it’s 378 miles—typically a six-hour drive (with no sight-seeing along the way). Go ahead, Google it or go to your distance calculator web site and see for yourself (on the map) how far it is.
The game at Cowley started at 6:00 on this particular Friday night, and by time the game was over and the bus was back on the road, it was nearly 10:00 p.m., and if you do the math, you know what time that puts the Panther football team back in Cokeville.
Yet, there is more than just determining that is was sometime after 4:00 in the morning when the Cokeville busses breached the home town limits.
Speaking with Lenn Johnson, one of the two bus drivers for the Cokeville cause, he recounted how the two busses departed Cokeville at 8:30 that Friday morning and arrived just after 4:00 in Cowley with short stops in Farson and Thermopolis along the way. However, the day before, two other bus drivers drove a car to the area as they were designated to work the return trip—trading their car for the bus with the Johnson and the other Friday-morning driver. Such extensive logistics and coordination are required now as school budgets continue to be cut year after year. There was a time when the team would overnight in a motel somewhere on the way home after playing a road game this far away.
The handful of Cokeville fans that attended told me of their travel follies as well. Although they didn’t leave from Cokeville as early as the team, all of them had overnight stay locations after the game. One party was staying in Cody, while another party was going to stay in Riverton.
Lastly, you might wonder, how does a 378-mile bus ride affect a football team’s performance? Well, in Cokeville’s case, it wasn’t detrimental, but any fan or player of the team will tell you they had a pretty sluggish start even if they notched a win to the tune of 26-6 and remained undefeated.
Despite the flooding in Houston, the North Korean acquisition of a thermo-nuclear device, and the ongoing and everyday FUBARs by our President, I made a beeline for Dayton, Wyoming following my class that ended at 2:50 on this first Friday of September. Although it wasn’t the first week of the football season, it was my first week of the season. The truck was packed and gassed up before class and I was looking forward to the drive over the scenic Big Horn Mountains via the ten-percent grades of the “Oh-My-God Highway” (i.e., U.S. Highway 14-A).
The 6:00 start time worried me regarding my ability to arrive on time even though my navigation app told me it was a two-hour drive. Whatever travel time such apps say, I’m pretty sure such estimates should be multiplied by 1.5 when I’m driving since I’m not a fast driver, and I stop often to photograph along the way.
I’d been looking forward to revisiting Tongue River for some time as I haven’t been there since they built the new school and repositioned the gridiron. Standing on the sidelines, I was stumped in this real life “Where’s Waldo” puzzle as I scrutinized the area to detect what had exactly changed when comparing the location of the old field vs. its new location. I would likely need some aerial photography that provided a before and after image of what surely must be subtle changes in the landscape.
Speaking of aerial photography, one of my main objectives in this outing was to capture a strong aerial image of the field with my “high-end” drone—with the Big Horn Mountains as a backdrop. Unfortunately, I was presented with a “firmware upgrade required,” so this drone never left the ground. However, the mission was somewhat salvaged in that I also brought along one of my toy-grade drones and managed to get the attached image included in this post. So, a big sarcastic “thanks” goes out to the DJI firmware upgrade crew for crippling this photo opportunity.
Along with revisiting one of the most scenic locations for a Wyoming high school football game, the Wright Panthers were in town as a worthy opponent for the Eagles, and I’d never seen a game featuring their yellow and black colors with the oversized “W” on their lids.
Wright gave the Eagles a good game, and appeared to have a size advantage, but couldn’t get the win. From my vantage, they seemed to lack the confident and the preparation that is so critical for a first-game of the season. If the two teams meet in the playoffs later this season, I won’t be surprised to hear of Wright winning the second contest.
Perhaps the biggest story of the day was smoke. Forest fires from distant locations to the north and west of Dayton made this quaint little community known for its clean mountain air feel like a typical large city with an inversion problem. I wondered how the air quality was affecting these young adults full of testosterone, playing their first game of the season, while bashing wildly into each other all night. Given such conditions, I concluded they probably didn’t even notice a little air pollution.
Following the game, I queried the staff at the Dayton Sinclair Quick Stop about overnight car camping and followed their advice on the Community Center parking lot. A drive back over the Big Horns in darkness these days is out of the question for a 57-year-old like myself. So, I processed images as I devoured a sandwich and a bag of chips in the dark parking lot before retiring around 10:30.
Early in the morning, I found refuge at the Branding Iron Café in the form of French Toast and coffee before heading over the Big Horns. As I climbed the 14-A mountain road, I concluded that small town high school football trips don’t get much better than this.
Postscript: You can purchase Maltesers (chocolate-covered malt balls that are ten times better than Whoppers) at the Dayton, Wyoming, Sinclair for 49 cents per 1.3 oz. bag. The same bag goes for over $2 at the World Market Store in Billings.
The Pronghorns of Farson-Eden made the 200-mile-plus trip to Meeteetse only to find themselves down 53-0 at the half. Hullet and Little Snake River made even longer trips (290 and 306 miles respectively) with results that weren’t quite as lopsided, but nevertheless, lopsided. And to travel that far and lose surely makes for a long and gloomy bus ride back home—arriving in the early morning hours of a Saturday following a Friday night contest. Let’s hear it for the bus drivers as well.
Yet, if some schools have to travel great distances to play Meeteetse on their home field, at some point The Longhorns’ schedule demands they return the favor. So, next week they have a road game in Dubois which will require a three-hour bus ride (and another three hours home). Yet, the ’Horns have two things going for them. First, they are expected to easily win. Second, Dubois doesn’t have lights, so the game will be Friday afternoon providing Meeteetse’s players and coaches a civil arrival time back home in their town of just over 300 residents. Further, if it wasn’t for the high peaks and mountainous terrain of the Shoshone National Forest between the two towns, it would be even a shorter trip (see map sans the longboard advertisement). Such is high school sports in states like Wyoming and Montana.
When I have time, I try hard to put this project out there. Magazines that might be interested for an upcoming issue, publishers that could be enticed, agents that might see some potential, and museums or galleries that are looking for something different—they are all legitimate targets when it comes to pitching them a proposal.
As these things go, most of the time I never get a reply about a query or submission—for all I know, no one ever received what I sent in. Which strikes me as odd in this modern day of easy and abundant communications systems at our disposal—a rant for another day.
Yet, every once in awhile, I actually do get a response. Most of the time it’s just a simple form rejection letter. You know, “Thanks for your submission. Your work is very impressive, but after careful thought we decided it’s not quite right for our …whatever.”
Even less frequent, a real person will write back and specifically mention what I’ve sent. These are the next best things to someone saying, “We want it.”
The other day I received one of those cherished replies from an editor at High Country News and even though a real person replied back, it was clear they didn’t really grasp what my Six-Eight-Eleven project is all about in saying, “We haven’t traditionally run stories about team sports in High Country News, because there often isn’t a distinction about what it means for the Western U.S.”
Sometimes when someone distills this body of work down to something as simple as “team sports” or “sports photography,” I just want to hit them like a tackling dummy. But in this case, after I cool down and compose myself, I try to correct their vision with something like the following:
Your response is what I’m used to hearing, but, let me at least correct you that this body of work is as much about life and living in the West as it is about “team sports.” I tell people that the small town high school football project is simply a lens for looking at the lives and culture of these by-passed and overlooked communities. For example, look at how the dwindling populations lead to declining enrollments in today’s rural schools. This leads to football teams moving from a traditional 11-man game to an 8-man or 6-man game (as with many schools in Wyoming and Montana). Some school enrollments are getting so low in Montana that they form co-ops with schools down the road (20-30 miles often) just to have a six-man team! And beyond these games, there is little else that brings these communities together in one event with the exception of a summer rodeo (if they even have one). Typically, once the high school sports teams are gone, the closing of the school isn’t far behind. And then, what remains for such a town to be a community? I suppose this is what I see in the game of football (no matter how many players are fielded) as an important element in a small town’s struggle to be vibrant and thus viable.
Next year, of Wyoming’s five classes of football—the most competitive will be the smallest with 16 teams. Most of the other classes are lucky to have 12. In Montana, six-man and eight-man play have more teams competing than the other three classes of eleven-man (69 vs. 67).
I'll go as far as to say that the growing number of high schools (and their enrollments) in the largest cities of Montana and Wyoming along with the shrinking enrollment in the smaller schools is a barometer that Western living is becoming more urbanized despite the growing trend that we can work from anywhere in today’s “connected” world.
I see Paonia plays in Colorado’s smallest class of 11-man football. I wonder if you’ve attended a game there to have a look around—beyond the gridiron. Better yet, you might want to wander up the road a ways to a town like Collbran where they play eight-man or if you get over the other side of the hill, check out a six-man game in La Veta or Weston. I think you’ll know what I’m talking about... it’s a bit more than just about “team sports.”
And sometimes—rare as it is, they’ll actually reply back to my reply with something like this:
Thank you for giving me a little more context to the story. With that background I can see how it might fit in as an online gallery (I’m full through the end of this year, but it could work next year.) Can you put together an edit that depicts the culture of these small communities in relation to the field and the teams? These two photos from your flickr page (links to my flickr page) tell quite the story, as well as the photo at the link you just sent. Then I’ll take your edit to the editorial meeting to see what the rest of the team thinks.
Now, if I can just figure out what they mean by “putting together an edit.”
During any given week of any given year of the Montana eight-man football season, there’s a good chance the Longhorns of Wibaux are sitting near the top of the polls—if not in the poll position. However, ending the season as owners of that top spot has been rather elusive for the ‘Horns in the past 13 years. So, after seeing them drop title games at Centerville (2006), Chinook (2010) and Ennis (2013), I was delighted to see them crowned champions this year. Honestly, I was starting to think their title-game bad luck had something to do with me. But, they haven’t always come up short when I was around.
In 2006 I made the long trip to Wibaux (342 miles) for the Class C semi-final game between the Longhorns and the visiting Trojans from Drummond. Two years earlier Drummond had stunned visiting Wibaux in a quarterfinal matchup and hadn’t lost a game since the 2002 season. The Longhorns repaid the Trojans that weekend, but beyond the excitement of that particular contest, I also remember the town of Wibaux itself.
To say that Wibaux is a rich football town is an understatement. Located on the extreme eastern plains of Montana, there’s no nearby college or professional football venues to distract. Throw in a program with a storied winning tradition and you have the likeness of an Odessa, Texas, or Massillon, Ohio condensed down to a community of 600 or so (and just over 1,000 in the entire county).
Because Veterans Memorial Field at Wibaux is without floodlights, home games are on Saturdays—which means many of the locals are talking football come Friday night. So, just imagine a rich football town like Wibaux on the night before their team hosted the three-peat defending champions. It was pretty crazy as I recall, especially at the Rainbow Club where various TVs were hooked up to VCRs playing back old Wibaux title games that they won in the not-so-distant past. It seemed like everyone came in that night, even one of the coaches. There was a feeling in the air like no other eve of a big game. In short, The Rainbow Club could have hung with any joint on High Street in Columbus, Ohio the night before Michigan comes to town.
This past season, I made the long trip again to witness another rematch—the 2010 title-game between the Longhorns and Sugarbeeters from Chinook—and, once again, for all the marbles.
After my 2006 visit, I expected the town of Wibaux to be every bit as electric given this was another opportunity to exercise revenge.
The coach's dad, Dave Bertelsen
I headed out around 6:00 that Friday evening with a visit to the football field for a count of vehicles already parked around its perimeter for Saturday’s game (small town high school football’s equivalent of loge seats). Fifty-seven unoccupied vehicles surrounded most of the field, but there were still openings on the Chinook side. Later I learned that most of the cars and trucks had been there since Monday. This validated what I already knew about Wibaux: they were crazy about their football.
By 6:30, I drove down to the Beaver Creek Brewery expecting to find a line of patrons outside the door, but it looked and felt like “business-as-usual.” The brewery and attached restaurant were operating at a healthy hum, but it wasn’t the hum of a night before a title game as much as it was simply the hum of a typical Friday night when more people dine out. Nevertheless, I rationalized that it was simply too early in the evening, so I took advantage of the civil setting and treated myself to the barbecue brisket on homemade bread from the menu. It was out of this world along with the special Irish cream ale on tap.
I took my time at Beaver Creek and by 8:00 I walked into the Rainbow Club to find it hauntingly subdued. Oh sure, there were folks in there, but like the brewery, it felt like just another Friday night rather than a title-game Friday night. I ordered a Coors (regular) and a pack of wasabi almonds as I waited for the crowd to follow, but an hour and a half later, I was already back in my motel room at the Beaver Creek Inn.
For all I know, perhaps things didn’t really get going until 10:00 that evening, and I can chalk my experience up to the fact that I’m just too old now to be out late. Yet, laying in bed, I wondered… Those TV sets showing old state title games were gone, replaced by cable TV coverage of various sporting events happening in real time. I considered the Internet and cable TV’s prolific reach into our smallest and most remote communities. I was reminded of franchise stores and restaurants and how they homogenize any given community to the point that they all start looking the same. And, those were my last thoughts before I drifted off to sleep.
It’s very possible that Wibaux is a little more subdued these days on Friday nights before a game than say, 2006, but I don’t doubt the victory celebration that followed the title game was anything less than memorable in every conceivable way. With threatening weather forecasted, I decided to make my way home after the game rather than linger and watch the town carry on in its celebration. Though I made it home without incident, it was a regrettable decision.
For the most part, I’m always pretty neutral given any game I attend—some have argued that, but really, I’ve never had a dog in any of these fights. Yet, in this 2014 eight-man championship game, I found myself pulling for the ’Horns. I know there are those Chinook faithful who believe this to be true because they gave me so much grief back in 2010 on this same blog, but I would have been backing the Longhorns no matter who opposed them in this title contest.
Here’s where I’m coming from: Some would argue that Wibaux has won plenty of state titles over the years and certainly doesn’t need more hardware for their overstuffed trophy case. But when a team consistently returns to the chipper almost like a perennial flower, and comes up short more often than they succeed, it’s easy to get behind them. And, unlike most folk, I’ve seen Wibaux lose more than they’ve won since I started this project in 1997.
A few years ago a friend of mine lectured me on why Jack Nicklaus—and not Tiger Woods—is the greatest golfer of all time. His rationale: when Nicklaus didn’t win, he was right there with the leaders in most tournaments he played. Contrary to that, Tiger Woods wins, but when he doesn’t win, he’s nowhere in sight of the leader board. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how Wibaux is the Jack Nicklaus of Montana football.
Head coach Jeff Bertelsen and sophomore Angus Lund
The truth be known, in my small town travels of Montana and Wyoming, I’ve come to like a lot of teams and almost all the ones I favor have a coach that has served for years. And the best thing about those coaches is they couldn't care less if someone like me favors them or not.
Lastly, I typically cheer for underdogs and Wibaux is constantly an underdog when it comes to enrollment numbers. There are several schools that play six-man with more students than Wibaux, but the Longhorns continue to play eight-man. According to the Montana High School Association, in 2013–14, the two schools that faced Wibaux in the semi-final and championship games this year—Ennis and Chinook—had 108 and 142 students (9–12) respectively while 57 students were enrolled at Wibaux. The only other school to have lesser numbers playing eight-man is Hays-Lodgepole with 51 students. Of those 57 Wibaux students, 28 were listed in the title game program roster, and as far as I could tell, the same number (or close to it) were in uniform too.
So call me a ’Horns fan—I’m OK with it because I like winners and I like underdogs.
Note: As of the time of this writing, I did not find such statistics for the 2014-15 school year, but the numbers are likely similar.
This is probably the earliest I’ve ever posted to my football blog. Of course, there’s a reason for it… I cheated. I stayed in the warm confines of my home and listened the the web-based radio broadcast of the Wibaux-Ennis semi-final—a rematch of last year’s title game compliments of KBOW in Butte. Of course, I don’t have any images from the game either, but I didn’t have to make that long drive back in the darkness that comes so early this time of the year when Daylight Savings Time is banished.
Some may have noticed, but for the most part I sat out this season of small town high school football with the exception of attending two games early in the season at nearby Bridger and Fromberg. It was a semi-conscious decision. I even received a couple emails from nice folks who have noticed my absence from the scene. Such correspondences give me hope in all of humanity.
I could blame this sabbatical on my rejuvenated passion for longboarding, or maybe I just needed to take a year off. There were also a few projects around the house that needed attending to as well and the approximate $100/week required to attend any specific contest certainly came in handy.
I have to say, listening to the game on the radio wasn’t all that bad. I could almost see the game—of course the images burned into my memory from having attended the matchup last year surely helped my radio experience this year.
Despite my resignation from the season, there hasn’t been a week that I haven’t checked the scores from around the two states of Wyoming and Montana. Further, I found myself earlier this week considering the drive to Ennis, but the cold weather turned me back in those final moments of my decision. Even if better weather had been on the scene, I’m unsure if I really would have made the trip. In the back of my mind, there was this little voice that was accusing me of being a hypocrite if I attended—in the same light as someone who attends church on Easter Sunday, but hasn’t attended regularly during the past Sundays. That’s the kind of stuff that goes through my mind.
For now, there’s next week to consider: The MonDak Thunder make another long road trip as they face the defending six-man champs in the Rivals of Geraldine and Highwood. At the same time, Wibaux will be hosting and looking to avenge yet another nasty title-game-loss in the eight-man chipper against the Sugarbeeters of Chinook. To top it all off, the weather forecast looks a little better for next weekend too.
You know, sometimes I can feel incredibly cozy in the shoes of a hypocrite.
Photo: Ennis fans watch the 2013 Montana Class C Eight-Man title game from a house adjacent to the Ennis football field.
This was a good year in terms of attending small town high school football games in Wyoming and Montana—better than the last two anyway. When it comes to the title game weekend—the last weekend of the season—there is a certain bittersweetness about it all. Despite the anxiety and excitement of that last game, being on the road for eleven of the thirteen weekends that constitute Wyoming and Montana high school football can take its toll on a guy, especially if he’s juggling a full-time job on the side. I’d put it right up there with finishing a marathon (and yes, I have run a marathon).
For the record, I covered 5,623 miles in those eleven weekends. That comes out to 511 miles per weekend. Given there were some years when I covered more ground while other years were less, it’s safe to say this was probably a pretty “normal” year of travel. As one of my colleagues once told me, “That’s a lot of windshield time.”
On a related note, despite their nearly identical distances from my hometown of Powell, Wyoming, why did it seem that Broadus, Montana (261 miles away) was so much farther than Farson, Wyoming (258 miles away)?
Of course those last games of the playoffs also translate into more night-time driving thanks to the end of Daylight Savings Time. During those times, I usually don’t get too far down the road from that Saturday venue before I’m pulling over and calling it a night from the comforts of my car and sleeping bag. My eyes aren’t what they used to be. And, it seems like there’s more big pickups pulling heavy trailers than ever—none of which have adjusted their headlights to their loads (does anyone even do that anymore?). Yet, after that last game, there’s something in me that just wants to get home, despite the excessive darkness and bright oncoming headlights... along with a little voice that says, “C’mon, you can drive in the darkness just this one time.”
Now the season is a memory, and the days keep getting shorter. With no more six-man or eight-man games to live for in the near future, these are the bleakest days of the year for me. At least until December 22 when the days start getting longer again. And, when I stop to think about it, that’s a pretty short period of “downtime” in the course of a year. Perhaps I’ll try increasing my intake of ketchup (with its “natural mellowing agents”) as the commercial on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion suggests.
I’ve already been thinking about next year. Because it has been so long, perhaps I really should try to attend a Wyoming playoff game, but not the title game at that behemoth stadium in Laramie… that’s no place for small town high school football! The semi-final perhaps would be best. Hopefully there will be some good match ups instead of rematches. If a Wyoming playoff game does materialize for me, it’ll be a huge sacrifice given the excitement and drama of the Montana C-8 and C-6 playoffs.
I've got the wheels to ride and the wheels to run, Some say I got ramblin' in my blood No pretty girl can slow me down I'll travel 'till my country home is found…
—“Traveling Song” by The Avett Brothers
Postscript: I’d like to tell you that I meticulously recorded the mileage and other details of each trip, but the truth of the matter is I used distancescalculator.com.
It’s a “season” that begins with the fighting of heat and mosquitos, but near its completion, the fight is with a growing cold while each new week brings a stronger opponent.
One could make an argument that either team was deserving of this year’s title. Ennis hadn’t won it all since 1982 (coincidentally against Wibaux). Yet, Wibaux has been knocking on the title door five different times since winning it last in 2001.
In my camp and beyond, there was worry of a title game blowout. Ennis had been playing invincible football all season long. The Billings Gazette’s Slim Kimmel said of the title game, “It’s the matchup we wanted, but Ennis is playing at a completely different level than the rest of Class C 8-Man. Ennis 44, Wibaux 20.” And so for once, the Longhorns were the undisputed underdog coming into the season finale.
As it turned out, Kimmel was right about the winner, but there was no doubt that the Longhorns from Wibaux were playing at the same level as the Mustangs. Every time it appeared the Mustangs were going to put the game out of reach, Wibaux would come back to pull within a touchdown or less.
It was gut check time for Ennis, and from behind their green facemasks, it showed—especially in the second half.
Along with their army of football players, Wibaux brought the wood and heart—and Ennis would need some of their own including their talent and high-octane athleticism to claim the title.
Wibaux had done their homework when it came to keeping talented players like Connor Sullivan, Roy Moen and Reid Farnes out of the end zone, but the Wibaux defense had no answers for Ennis junior quarterback Walker McKitrick—neither his running or passing game (in particular his hookups with senior Chad Johnerson). Johnerson and McKitrick were both slippery and elusive to the Wibaux defense and that was significant. Yet, the Longhorns made the scoring look effortless as well in tallying 56 points on their side of the scoreboard.
Credit the Ennis coaching staff for not resting on their laurels by resorting to a conservative game once they established the lead. They made sure the high-octane Ennis offense maintained their killer instinct, and in turn, that maintained the team’s confidence.
Looking back on the game, I doubt anyone was too surprised in how the Longhorns measured up to the Mustangs. Pound for pound, season after season, Wibaux continually rises to the top; and if not outright on top, certainly near the top. Look at it this way: how long has it been since Wibaux wasn’t in the playoffs?
…sometime in the Dark Ages I’m guessing.
I’ve contemplated this before, but Wibaux is simply the (as in “thee”) standard when it comes to eight-man football in Montana. (I can hear my select Chinook critics now.) Despite any bragging that goes with being a member of championship team, surely there’s a little extra bragging if one of those victories in route to the Montana state title includes vanquishing a Wibaux team—especially if it occurs in the championship match.
Not long ago, some guy in some bar—say Havre, Montana—likely just told someone that he was on the 2002 Scobey state championship team. You can almost hear him say in the same breath, “…and we beat Wibaux in the title game!”
But the day will surely come—maybe even next year—Wibaux will win another title. After falling short in the past, might this future Longhorn championship team be any more special then these past runner up teams? Probably not. Win or lose, they have all served as bearers of a standard that is quintessential Montana eight-man football.
So, congratulations are in order to the Ennis Mustangs. They were victorious over a bona fide and formidable Wibaux team. They have passed the acid test. They have earned the badge. They have passed “GO” and can now collect their $200. Without question, the Ennis Mustangs earned the title of “State Champs.”
Postscript: Here's a nice story on SB Nation about Wibaux's season and eight-man football in Eastern Montana by Jamie Rogers.
In the muted light of the Geraldine High School gymnasium, Rivals coaches Rod Tweet and Brandon Gondeiro sat quietly in the bleachers before their Montana Class C Six-Man semi-final game with Savage. It felt like the calm before the storm. Players of the undefeated and number-one ranked Geraldine-Highwood Rivals were casually throwing footballs back and forth to stay loose—dressed in their t-shirts and football pants, sans shoulder pads and helmets.
“They match up with us pretty evenly,” came the subdued response from Tweet when I asked him about undefeated Savage. Their was no over-the-top optimism or impending doom in his voice. Tweet’s comment came across simply as matter-of-fact.
It’s always exciting when two highly touted teams from two different conferences battle in the playoffs, but such meetings don’t always result in an exciting game—as in the Class C Eight-Man quarterfinal game I attended the week earlier between Ennis and Simms.
A couple of hours after that brief visit in the gym, when Savage roared back from a 22-8 halftime deficit to tie the the game at thirty and send the game into overtime, perhaps the least surprised person attending the game was Rod Tweet.
The Savage rally transported me back to 2003 when Geraldine (before their co-op with Highwood) and Custer-Melstone met on the same field for the six-man final. Instead it was the Tigers of Geraldine who ended up rallying from a significant halftime deficit, and winning the title with a final score of 80-78. Coincidentally, in both games the team that was wearing orange and black was the team that overcame their slow, first-half beginnings. However in this semi-final game with Savage, Geraldine-Highwood would survive the rally and answer it with their own rally in the two overtime periods.
It’s always somewhat bittersweet when two football programs of such high caliber play each other in such a fierce and closely battled contest. As a relatively neutral spectator (but fan of the game), I hate to see anyone lose in such conditions.
In those last moments of overtime, after the Rivals secured their second touchdown and PAT, and Savage’s quarterback Paxton Miller was forced out of bounds ending the game, the snow came on cue, like a curtain signaling the end of a theatrical play. As the mayhem of the game’s final seconds was replaced by a post-game hush, both teams circled in the middle of the field and offered up their thanks with the snow coming harder and faster.
I know not every game played on the Geraldine field is an exciting or magical one, but in my little universe I have to wonder if there’s something exceptional about that gridiron ...out there on those high wheat fields of Montana with its dramatic skies and crisp air.
Recently I read a story about the best high school football towns in America. For the most part, they were places I would expect given my slight obsession on this topic. Ranging from Ohio to Texas to the South, the top ten football programs were listed by rank. Yet, after reading the article, I couldn’t help but say to myself, “But they’ve never seen a game in Geraldine.”
…or Drummond, etc.
Postscript: A special thanks goes out to Ty from Savage… you know who you are. He let me borrow a pair of gloves for the game when I realized I was without mine prior to the start of the game.
This is the time of year when the quaint charm of everything that is small town high school football seems to fade away and is replaced by the pure competitive spirit that has become the playoff season. Given all the wholesome attributes that have drawn me to this particular genre of football (its good sportsmanship, simplicity, and overall Americana-feel for starters), sometimes I think staying home is a viable option once the last week of the regular season is completed. Nevertheless, after attending eight weeks of Class C football in Montana and 1A Six-Man in Wyoming, it’s difficult not to get caught up in everything that points toward the state championships.
And so, there I was driving off to Ennis for their quarterfinal game with Simms. Although it was a playoff game, I had a particular and unique interest in choosing the Ennis venue… I’d never photographed a Simms team in action.
I’ll confess here, deep down inside I wanted Simms to win, but it wasn’t because I knew someone on the team, or I had some kind of strange disliking for Ennis. No, I was only hoping that they would advance so they would host the title game. Why? Because I’ve never photographed a game in Simms and after looking at the town on Google maps, I found myself curious about a town that fit perfectly in a square with its school smack dab in the center (see photo).
Well, perhaps a trip to Simms is in the cards for me next year.
I don’t put much stock into ratings when it comes to high school football, but the Ennis team did catch me off guard. Weren’t they the same team that took a beating by Fairview… twice, last year? My, how things change in the course of a year. Now I know why they were ranked number one from the first week of the season. It wasn’t just some willy-nilly, we-have-to-designate-some-undefeated-team-as-number-one thing.
As much as the Ennis 76-0 win over Simms took me by surprise, I was also astonished by the thrashing Superior suffered at the hands of Wibaux. Forgive me fans of Charlo and Belt, but I’m sensing a huge, well-contested Ennis-Wibaux title game on the near horizon, and surely I’m not the only one who has thought about it. This upcoming week of semi-finals feels way too much like a warm-up game for the Mustangs and Longhorns. That said, nothing keeps me more humble than getting wrong what I was certain I had right.
It may not have been a well-played game, but it certainly turned out to be a memorable one… a barnburner of sorts.
When I stepped out of the car in Farson for the Friday afternoon six-man shootout between Farson-Eden and Wyoming Indian, my excitement for the contest had diminished considerably compared to earlier in the week. Perhaps it had something to do with the cold wind blowing (despite being a sunny day), and given the 7,000 foot elevation of Farson, I should have expected it. I hadn’t slept well the night before either, making for a brutal five-hour drive in terms of staying alert behind the wheel. In a nutshell, I wasn’t exactly in a football-loving mindset when I arrived.
Thankfully, things turned around for me and like a snowball rolling down a big hill, by the time this game was nearing its completion, it had manifested into a huge event, one where I thought, “Wow, too bad there aren’t more people here to witness this dramatic conclusion.”
Right from the start, both teams came out scoring on their first possession. Wyoming Indian looked convincing in their quarterback senior Trevor Williamson. And when the Pronghorns of Farson-Eden lined up, I was stupefied to see that their starting offense was made up of juniors, sophomores and one freshman.
Following two quick scoring drives by each team, I heard one of the officials say to another, “Looks like we’re in for a track meet. Probably 72-70.”
I was doubtful if these two teams could put that many points on the board.
As the first half unfolded, the Pronghorns seemed to be gaining the upper hand over the Chiefs of Wyoming Indian; leading them by three touchdowns at the half to the tune of 39-20.
But, Wyoming Indian showed some spunk as they chipped away at Farson-Eden’s lead. With Farson-Eden’s advantage shrinking, Wyoming Indian’s intensity increased as well as that of the small crowd on hand. And, finally in the late minutes of the final quarter, the Chiefs managed to pin the Pronghorns deep into their own territory, causing a fumble in the end zone that resulted in the go-ahead touchdown.
A botched kick off return and penalty, found the Pronghorns with their back against the wall once again. The Chief defense notched a tackle in the backfield that was nearly a safety. With a minute remaining on the clock and on their own one-yard-line, the flustered Pronghorns called a timeout to regroup. As it turned out, the timeout was just what the doctor ordered as Farson-Eden called a play resembling the combination of a draw and counter. Junior running back Kelton Broadhead found daylight at the line of scrimmage and outran the Wyoming Indian defense down the home sidelines for the winning 79-yard touchdown (the longest touchdown possible on a six-man gridiron).
With little time remaining, the Chiefs tried to find one more magical moment, but Williamson was tackled behind the line of scrimmage as time expired.
It was a roller-coaster ride of a game.
As the field emptied out, I recalled the official’s casual prediction of a track-meet-like score in the early stages of the first quarter—he was more accurate than I ever would have given him credit. 128 points were scored between the two teams with Farson-Eden coming away with the win of 67-61.
Finally, I’ll credit the kids from Wyoming Indian for keeping their heads up during the handshakes that followed the game. They were ambassadors of good sportsmanship in the end. They had nothing to be ashamed of in their comeback. Yet, a couple of them were shedding tears following the handshakes. I thought to myself, “Who says Native American kids only care about basketball games?” The players from Wyoming Indian had given it their all.
As for Farson-Eden… look out for the Pronghorns next year. They might not just make it into the playoffs, they may go deep as every starter is returning.
Postscript: This victory for Farson-Eden resulted in their first earned playoff spot since their program started up in 2009.
The MonDak Thunder is a six-man football co-op between the two schools of Westby, Montana and Grenora, North Dakota. Clark Fork is also a co-op between Alberton and St. Regis, Montana. The two programs played this past weekend in a six-man football game held at Reed Point. Nothing unusual here unless you start looking at a Montana road map.
It is 635 miles between Westby, Montana and Alberton, Montana. It’s a bit farther (665 miles) if you count the distance between the Grenora, North Dakota and St. Regis, Montana. As it turned out, it was only 434 miles from Westby to Reed Point and a mere 314 miles from Alberton to Reed Point.
One MonDak fan traveling from Grenora said he made the drive in about seven hours, but he also picked up a speeding ticket in Fairview on the way.
Nevertheless, it was only 121 miles for me—just a little over two hours which included a coffee and fuel stop in Red Lodge.
I was curious about this game not only because both teams brought stellar records to the contest, but I wanted to know how this game materialized in the first place when schedules were put together last spring. After asking a few questions to those in the know, I discovered the rationale wasn’t as mysterious as I had dreamed.
It really came down to filling a bye week and both teams were facing byes at the same time. In particular, Clark Fork hails from the understaffed Western Conference with only six teams. As a result, even with one out-of-conference, regular-season game, Western teams would end up with two byes in their schedule unless they were willing to consider some “creative scheduling” as Clark Fork engineered with MonDak.
And so it came to be. Two football teams representing the extreme geographic regions of our country’s fourth largest land mass state met in Reed Point on a Saturday afternoon. As it turned out, MonDak was the victor in a well-played contest of East vs. West.
I wrote an earlier post about how teams from years and years ago may have met halfway and played football in a middle-of-nowhere wheat field. I’m not sure how much truth there is regarding such folklore since I’ve never been presented with any particulars. Nonetheless, the Clark Fork vs MonDak showdown might be a modern-day version of such meetings. Thanks to improvements in communications and transportation, it will never have to be as primitive either.
Postscript: In true rugby fashion, the twenty-eight members of the MonDak football team wear jerseys that are numbered one through twenty-eight. There’s no one playing center wearing number fifty-three, or a defensive tackle wearing number seventy-five. And twenty-eight is a formidable roster for a six-man football team.
Maybe you’ve been to the Grand Canyon, but there’s a good chance you haven’t been to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Likewise, there’s a good chance that any reader out there has been to Montana (maybe even living there now), but they haven’t been to Broadus (pop. 468).
Few would dispute that Broadus is a true off-the-beaten-track town. I once passed through Broadus by way of Biddle, Montana (pop. 61) on a tremendously hot, summer day excursion covering that little corner of Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. Because of the oppressive heat, I didn’t explore much that day, yet Broadus has been on my radar since. And when I learned last spring that they would start playing Class C eight-man, a game in Broadus became a priority as I mapped out another season of small town high school football in Wyoming and Montana. My eyes really lit up when I learned that their homecoming game would be played on a Saturday afternoon instead of a Friday night—and as I’ve stated before in other posts here—afternoon games always make for better images when it comes to photography despite the popularity and mystique of “Friday night lights.”
Even though sports classes in Montana are based on enrollment numbers rather than a community’s population, Broadus is a classic eight-man town with 468 residents. Despite such population numbers, it has only been this year that they came down to Class C eight-man play. Up until last year, they were playing Class B eleven-man schools/towns like Baker (pop. 1,741), Forsyth (pop. 1,886), and Colstrip (2,248). “We were getting smeared” as Cody Kinzer, the wife of Broadus head coach Russ Kinzer put it so bluntly. Broadus would often line up against these other teams that possessed three times as many players on their rosters.
Further, according to his wife, Coach Kinzer has really put in the extra time this year. She thinks it’s a combination of more information about the other teams and strategies at his finger tips while he has had to adjust his coaching to learn the nuances of eight-man play. Kinzer’s job won’t be getting that much easier either as his Hawks are situated in the same conference as perennial powerhouse Wibaux.
And now, with several wins under their wings and not even half way through the season, the Hawks of Broadus have been lifted by something they haven’t experienced in a long time—pride and confidence.
It’s a good stretch from anywhere to Broadus… that is anywhere with a Walmart such as Miles City (Montana), Gillette (Wyoming), or Belle Fourche (South Dakota). Miles City is slightly the closest of the three “big cities” at 78 miles—Gillette is 88 miles, and Bell Fourche is 95 miles. One Broadus fan commented that she prefers to go to Gillette because it has a Home Depot. And if it’s health care you’re picky about, Belle Fourche/Spearfish seems to be the preference for many Broadus residents.
Fifty years ago when transportation was less developed (both cars and roads), this isolated community was probably even more isolated. But today, people in rural communities are less inhibited to take off from such places. Eighty or one-hundred miles in one direction is simply a way of life in today’s remote towns of America—all the more reason for fans like us to attend an eight-man game in places like Broadus (and if you do, check out Seabeck’s Pizza and Subs).
Before the game with Froid-Medicine Lake, I told Coach Kinzer that I could easily see an eight-man championship game in Broadus someday (based on my years of travel to small town high school football venues). Everything has been in place for years, and now they are finally playing in a class where they can honestly compete.
I’m looking forward to that day when I’m following a string of cars over one of the few roads leading to Broadus—on our way to the state title game.
Postscript: The high school in Broadus is officially named Powder River County High School, but everyone says “BHS”—as in Broadus High School.
If you have ever been to West Yellowstone, Montana, you know it hardly feels like a small town. Located on the border of Yellowstone National Park, this community is a tourist magnet, and it shows—restaurants, motels, museums, fly shops, snowmobile rentals… you name it. But, when it comes to education, West Yellowstone High School is considered a small school—specifically when it comes to football, it is considered a Class C Six-Man program.
Further, given most “six-man-towns,” I never struggle in finding the community/school football field—even if I’ve never visited before. Driving into “West,” I was flummoxed by the continued growth of that community, and as a result, finding the school wasn’t automatic, even though I have attended several games there since 1999.
In short, West Yellowstone feels like Cody, Wyoming, but the Broncs of Cody play in one of the Cowboy State’s larger classes of eleven-man football.
And so, I was running late in getting to the West Yellowstone-Box Elder six-man football game. Coming from Red Lodge, Montana, I had anticipated a little over four hours of driving by way of the Park. However, it turned out to be nearly a five-and-a-half-hour trip thanks to the “bison jams” and road construction near Mammoth—not to mention the 45-mph speed limit.
This contest was of particular interest to me because Box Elder is somewhat of a resurrected program—fluctuating between a varsity and junior varsity schedule since 2005, including several years in the eight-man ranks before that.
Despite my tardiness, somehow I managed to arrive before the first half had expired and expected to find a game that already possessed a running clock due to a lopsided score in favor of the Wolverines of West Yellowstone. The score was lopsided alright, but surprisingly in favor of the Bears from Box Elder to the tune of 28-0. Looking over the program rosters, I was also a bit taken back by West Yellowstone’s low numbers—only eleven athletes on this year’s team.
For the remainder of the one-sided game, it puzzled me: how could a rural school like Box Elder field a football team that was so dominating over what appears to be a richer and more-developed school like West? Not that I’ve seen these things before, but it always baffles me. On top of that, Box Elder has struggled to field a team year after year, not to mention its roster is composed mostly of Native American kids—typically not known for being over-achievers when it comes to football, unlike their basketball accomplishments (a topic I’ve touched on before).
Since then, I’ve been kicking around all kinds of answers to my question. I’ve even considered consulting an astrologist.
Perhaps it’s simply an enrollment thing. West Yellowstone may have more residents than Box Elder: 1,298 vs. 794, but Box Elder wins in the K-12 enrollment contest: 313 vs. 221.
Also, maybe football is finally becoming more accepted, supported, and is catching on in the Native American communities. After all, not every kid in any culture or society is talented in the same areas. Surely there are Kenyans who can’t run a marathon very fast or Norwegians who can’t stay upright on a pair of skis.
It could also be that there’s just more distractions or options for high school kids in West Yellowstone, while autumn in Box Elder, maybe it’s football or nothing else.
Finally, perhaps Box Elder just has some kids this year that are above average in athletic achievement. I was also told the squad has a pretty good connection to their coach, Ronnie Simpson, and good coaching goes a long way too.
It’s likely that the answer to my bewilderment on the Box Elder-West Yellowstone outcome is a combination of some or all of the above.
Well, if anyone out there has some concrete, fact-based evidence on such small town football phenomena, feel free to share it here—even if it’s in the stars.