Monday, December 15, 2014

Wibaux: Beyond the Gridiron

Trophy2Go
Colton Tousignant
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.
Game Preparation
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.

Coach's Approval
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.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Watching From Afar

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.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Imitation, Flattery, Coincidence, or Outright Plagiarism

Parasite:
An organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense.

• derogatory a person who habitually relies on or exploits others and gives nothing in return.

Some might consider it a light case of plagiarism. I’m too close to the subject at hand, so I’ll leave it up to others.

On the left: my humble and modest self-published book from December of 2011.

On the right: SB Nation’s story on Wibaux and eight-man football in Eastern Montana.

Of all the typefaces available in this digital world (hundreds of thousands), Rockwell Extra Bold (or a clone of it) also landed on the SB Nation piece too... and across the sky.

Coincidence? Maybe. But, SB Nation’s Chris Mottram (see below) who produced the piece comes across as an arrogant tool when the likenesses of these two are presented to him.

Regarding parasites... they are usually small intities feeding off of larger bodies. Perhaps SB Nation represents a model that works the other way.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Broadus To Farson, And No Ketchup

End Of Game by mdt1960
End Of Game, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
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.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Ennis Passes The Wibaux Acid Test

Game Over by mdt1960
Game Over, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
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.

Uninvited Guest by mdt1960
Uninvited Guest, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
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.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Geraldine, Montana: a football Elysium

Geraldine Setting by mdt1960
Geraldine Setting, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
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 Savage.

…or Centerville.

…or Denton.

…or Wibaux.

…or Alberton.

…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.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Playoff Musings

Kickoff At Ennis by mdt1960
Kickoff At Ennis, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
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.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Farson Fireworks

Troubled Quarterback by mdt1960
Troubled Quarterback, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
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.

Game Officials by mdt1960
Game Officials, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
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.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Meeting in the Middle

Six-Man Mecca by mdt1960
Six-Man Mecca, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
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.

Slashing Field by mdt1960
Slashing Field, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
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.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Broadus: Smaller Now, But Prouder

Shutting Down Run by mdt1960
Shutting Down Run, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
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.”

KinzersAddress by mdt1960
KinzersAddress, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
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.

Homecoming Spirit by mdt1960
Homecoming Spirit, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
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.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Football Phenomena: The Answer Is In The Stars

End-Game Handshakes by mdt1960
End-Game Handshakes, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
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).

Coach Simpson & Ketchum by mdt1960
Coach Simpson & Ketchum, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
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.

Postscript: Here's another Native American football story with a Wyoming spin on it from my friend and journalist Ron Feemster at WyoFile.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Small Town Football Moms Wanted

Hornet Mom Directs by mdt1960
Hornet Mom Directs, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
When my father played high school football in the early 1940s, his mother (my grandmother) would attend his games, but she never watched; rather, she remained inside the car out in the parking lot until the game was over.

High school football moms and their sons… I need to talk to you.

I am working on a story this upcoming season for a popular women’s magazine. This requires an interview and photography of those who fit this description. The assignment would include attending a game where I could interview mothers (perhaps along with their sons/daughters if possible) and photograph their child in action as well as the mother during the game. I think some kind of portrait of the two would be a nice touch as well.

As one would expect, I'm hoping to hear from those who come from those small towns of Montana and Wyoming.

If you (or know of someone) fit this description and are interested in participating, contact me: mdt1960@yahoo.com

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Image Selection

Trojan Helmets by mdt1960
Trojan Helmets, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
This image (and another) were recently selected for the Rayko Juried Plastic Camera Photo Exhibit held in San Francisco from March 6 through April 22, 2013.

From 2005, this is the Drummond Trojans photographed from the Interstate 90 bridge that separates the school from the gridiron as they prepare to take their home field during the playoffs.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gridiron Harmony: Winning Big & Sportsmanship

Finally Over by mdt1960
Finally Over, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
“Sportsmanship seems to fall by the wayside during the playoffs.” —2012 Montana Class C Six-Man title game spectator

FALL BY THE WAYSIDE: fail to persist in an endeavor or undertaking: many readers will fall by the wayside as the terminology becomes more complicated.

Sometimes good sportsmanship is a dicey thing to define but, if you ever need to see an illustration of good sportsmanship in its purest form, Montana Class C six-man football will likely give you the most prolific demonstration.

I found myself wondering about it as I watched the six-man title game in Hot Springs this past weekend. With a halftime score advantage of 49-0 over their opponent from Big Sandy, the Savage Heat continued to play their starters for the entire game despite establishing an unquestionable superiority over the Pioneers early on. The bleeding finally stopped when the last seconds ticked off even though the scoreboard read 77-0. Thank goodness for the continuous running clock.

From the Montana High School Association Football Handbook: “In Classes A, B or C (8 and 6 player) football game, if at any time the score differential reaches 35 points or more, the clock will not be stopped when: A) The ball goes out-of-bounds. B) A forward pass is incomplete. C) A fair catch is made or awarded. D) A touchback occurs. E) A first down is declared. If the score differential falls below 35 points, normal timing procedures will be utilized.”

Even the Billings Gazette mentioned the lopsided score, citing it as the largest winning victory in a title game, previously held by Moore when they defeated Brady 63-13 in the 1984 six-man championship. However, it fell just shy of the 80 points scored in one contest when Geraldine needed all but one of those 80 points to defeat Custer 80-78 in the 2003 title game.

When I asked a couple of Big Sandy fans about it, they weren’t as resentful as I would have suspected. In fact, the few I spoke with with were downright understanding but, they all agreed that pulling their starters after a big lead would have been their choice had they been the Hot Springs coach—if nothing else to give the reserve players the opportunity to have played in a title game.

Gray Breaks Free by mdt1960
Gray Breaks Free, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Let me say here that I have nothing but respect and admiration for the Hot Springs football team, and I take nothing away from their undisputed Class C Six-Man title. I’ve seen more than my share of six-man championships and this year’s Savage Heat could certainly run with the other past champions.

“It’s a coach’s prerogative,” cited one fan. “But, if I faced them another time and the tables were turned, I’d return today’s favor.”

I was tempted to ask one of the Savage Heat coaches what the motive was for leaving their starters in for the entire game with such a commanding lead but, I suspected that such a query would take away from a coach’s earned championship celebration. Simply put, it seemed like an unsportsmanlike question in the wake of such jubilation.

Ultimately my hope is that there was some hidden or unknown rationale for the apparent sportsmanship faux pas. Perhaps both coaches agreed before the game that no matter the outcome, they were going to play their starters the entire game because it would be their last (at least for the eight seniors from both teams who started). I’d like to believe that this rationale, although not obvious, was the factor in the overstated victory.

For all I know, there had been some trash talk going on between the two teams during the past week via an Internet chat room. That would certainly explain the game’s outcome as well.

Of course, some would say that such scores are often the nature of six-man football which I wouldn’t dispute. Yet, when an existing lopsided score becomes even more acute, it is often the result of the reserve teams adding their own tallies to the scoreboard.

Whatever the rationale behind the “piling on the points” by Hot Springs, I hope there was plenty of good intention behind it as opposed to the annihilation and humiliation of their opponent—which would be a contradiction to one of six-man football’s most outstanding attributes. Mind you, what often appears on the surface and the intentions underneath aren’t always the same, nor are they known by the average fan/spectator during such lopsided matches.

Small town high school football has always reminded me of the stories my father would tell when he played football in the early 1940s; a time when the game wasn’t hyped up, good sportsmanship was practiced by everyone who played, and there was an air of innocence to it—more so than today’s game. And back then, I’m told they didn’t have playoffs. So, after a 7-0 season all one could say was that their team went 7-0, period. There was nothing to prove beyond that.

Don’t get me wrong here: I look forward to the playoffs as much as anyone, but it is a bit disconcerting if their arrival somehow translates to a downgrade or dismissal of good sportsmanship.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Pnuemonia, Fuel Pumps and Football

Distracted Mechanics by mdt1960
Distracted Mechanics, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
A year ago this weekend, the weekend of the Montana quarterfinals, I had just started to consider which quarterfinal game I would attend for the upcoming weekend when I fell ill to pneumonia that progressed into septic shock—ultimately preventing me from seeing the completion of the 2011 season. The weekend before I had attended the first-round playoff game in Fairview where the Warriors had their way with Centerville. My travel plans for the following weekend were likely either Twin Bridges and their showdown with Chester-Joplin-Inverness or a long drive down I-94 to Savage and their matchup with Hot Springs.

This past Friday, I set out for a motel in Glendive that would serve as a base camp. Saturday morning I would wake up in Glendive and drive to Grenora, North Dakota to take in a Montana Class C six-man quarterfinal game between the upstart co-op MonDak (Westby, Montana and Grenora, North Dakota) and Big Sandy to finish what I started last season.

And like last year, the universe had other plans for me, only this time I wouldn’t fall ill, my truck would—in particular, the fuel pump.
First Fumble by mdt1960
First Fumble, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.

The gasoline prices in Bridger, Montana are often cheaper than in my hometown of Powell. As a result, I fuel up in Bridger as I make my way to some far-off football game. This past Friday was no exception only when I started my engine after topping off the tank, it refused to fire. I’d experienced this before and it wasn’t long before I started suspecting the fuel pump.

From behind the Maverick store where I pushed my dead-in-the-water pickup, Fremont Ford in Powell informed me over the phone of an operation in Bridger that purchases parts from them on a regular basis so, they gave me the number to Carbon Equipment Repair, LLC. And at 4:15 on a Friday afternoon, Steve (one of the three mechanics) informed me that despite having six other calls on this late Friday afternoon (“Breakdown Friday” as he called it), he was going to try to squeeze my truck in. By 5:00 when most businesses are hurrying to shut down for the weekend, my truck was going up on CER’s lift.

On a side note and small plug for CER, their shop is an amazing snapshot of today’s American mechanization as they repair almost anything—from the small jobs like my pickup to semi trucks and farm tractors.

As it turned out, my truck needed more than just a new fuel pump as there were other complications with the wiring to the fuel pump and those parts weren’t readily available.
Beater by mdt1960
Beater, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.

Despite the grim news that I wouldn’t be making it to Grenora, I had two reasons to be hopeful: first, Donovan, Dustin and Steve had an old beater Dodge Stratus that they would lend me until my truck was repaired. Secondly, Bridger was hosting one of the other six-man playoff games the next day. And despite attending two Bridger games already this year, I felt pretty lucky to have this option on the table.

As it turned out, I walked away from the weekend feeling that not only is small town high school football still a viable and rewarding sport for kids from such communities like Bridger but, small town America is still a great place to visit or live (if your lucky enough)—starting with the hard-working and tireless mechanics at Carbon Equipment Repair, LLC.

Footnote: This week’s semifinal lineup for Class C (both 8-man and 6-man) is quite unusual in that it resembles a Wyoming playoff scenario where in every matchup the teams have already faced each other during the regular season. Fairview thumped Ennis at the Brawl in the Beartooths during the first week while Superior was downed by Drummond in a two-point shoot-out back on September 21, Hot Springs defeated Geraldine-Highwood on August 31 to the tune of 45-13, and Valier topped Big Sandy by two points as well on September 28.

Monday, October 01, 2012

A Brush With Small Town Greatness

Anthem Antics by mdt1960
Anthem Antics, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Related to the full moon, her text message said, “Moonlight is magical and brings you either luck or insanity.”

As a photographer, it’s a bit uncanny how the faces of these players stay with you through the years. You might not notice them when you’re walking down a street in any given town, but when you’re back in their small home towns—where they played football—it’s not unreasonable to think that you might bump into them… say, eight years later.

I was carrying on with my invisible act as I often do when I’m in public places and I don’t really know anyone. I hesitated about it, but before leaving Hysham, Montana, after the game, I decided to have a cold beer at one of the local watering holes. I sat at an empty high table—the kind fitted with the high chairs/stools—minding my own business and watching the interaction of the locals unfold. Several young men gravitated to my table but were facing toward the bar across from me. The next thing I knew, more gathered around which included sitting on my side of the table next to me. Suddenly, it appeared as if I was one of the gang.

The young man that sat next to me became recognizable almost right away thanks to friends calling out to him as “Scotty” and “Schultzy.”

I took a hard look and knew it was Scott Schultz, the great Hysham fullback and linebacker that lead the Pirates to a playoff appearance in 2004. They were a gutsy eight-man team with only 12 players and still managed to fight their way into the playoffs that year. After easily defeating Scobey in the first round, Schultz and his teammates gave perennial favorite Centerville the biggest scare in the quarterfinals, dominating the entire first half before succumbing to exhaustion and injuries (Schultz included) in the second half. It was a controversial game as well with questionable calls by the officials while fans from both sides became irate with one another. Had the Hysham team stayed healthy, they surely would have seen another playoff game the following week.

Earlier in the evening on my way to the six-man game between Hysham and Westby-Grenora, one of the ticket-takers shared with me how many of the kids that graduated from Hysham over the years headed for the good-paying jobs in the Bakken oil field rather than college—Schultz was one of them, she had said.

Looking Down On Big "H" by mdt1960
Looking Down On Big "H", a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Nearly finished with my beer, my invisible guard must have broke down as Schultz turned to me and asked where I was from. Like most of the crowd, I detected in his face that he probably already had a couple of drinks and so, I contemplated if it really mattered where I was from. I told him Powell, Wyoming and that I was just heading home. He followed up thoughtfully with, “That’s not too far to go.”

Knowing the conversation wouldn’t last much longer, I said, “You were number 32, weren’t you?” He seemed puzzled, but after clarifying that I spoke of his football number, he confirmed it was his jersey number. I then told him I’d seen him play in Ekalaka, Terry and Centerville. One of the guys across the table overheard me and said something akin to, “He must be stalking you Scotty.”

I handed Schultz one of my cards for good measure.

Referring to the Centerville game, Scott said, “We don’t talk about that game around here.”

Feeling like one of Clint Eastwood’s senior citizen characters I simply said, “You guys were one hell of a team,” as I rose from my chair. I patted him on the shoulder as I walked past and said, “Take care of yourself.” I placed the empty beer bottle on the bar and walked out.

I smiled all the way out the door and later laughed as I was driving out of town heading toward the interstate but, I’m unsure why. Perhaps it was just dumb luck in meeting up with one of these players from so long ago. Or maybe it was knowing that he might have sat there for a minute after I left—considering his own sanity—thinking in a somewhat inebriated state, “What the hell was that all about?”

Whatever it was, whatever had just happened it made me smile with an overwhelming sense of happiness. I knew it was magical, and there was the full moon above to remind me.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Rising Up To Pinedale

Fist Bump by mdt1960
Fist Bump, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
After umpteen years of attending small town high school football games, one would think that I’ve been everywhere there is in the two states of Wyoming and Montana but, it’s just not true.

When it comes to Montana Class C football, I’ve been absent for games in Victor, St. Regis, Hot Springs, Culbertson-Bainville, Froid-Medicine Lake, Darby, Box Elder, Lambert-Richey, Cascade and Valier… and those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

In Wyoming, it’s the same story but the small schools are defined as those playing 2A or lower. Starting with the smallest schools playing six-man, Midwest and Guernsey-Sunrise are still not represented in my portfolio. In 1A, I have yet to attend a game at Wyoming Indian, Saratoga, Upton, Southeast, Pine Bluffs, Normative Services, Lusk or Lingle-Ft. Laramie.

Despite this blatant negligence on my part, I can say that most of the schools listed above, I have actually been to their gridirons—just not during game days.

So, I’m delighted to announce here that this past weekend I added another notch to my football belt in a trip to Pinedale for a contest between the 2A Wranglers and the 1A Rebels of Riverside (Basin).

The one thing I truly cherish about the 2A class in Wyoming is that it represents the largest tally of schools in all of Wyoming’s classes. So, if anyone can say they are a “state champ” in Wyoming, it is the team that takes the 2A title—unless they are beaten by a 1A school during the regular season (this might be a good opportunity to read up on Cokeville).

Like West Yellowstone, Montana, the best way to get to Pinedale from my home in Powell is through the Park—Yellowstone National Park that is. And since Pinedale is south of the Park, I also passed through Grand Teton National Park. Excuse me if I sound as if I’m boasting here but, I’m confident few people are lucky enough to drive through places as scenic as Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks on their way to a high school football game.

When it comes to Pinedale, it is unique in its elevation. Walking around town or on the artificial turf of Sonny Korfanta Field, one might experience a shortness of breath given the town is listed at nearly 7,200 feet. So, I wondered: Do the Wranglers have an advantage, especially when other teams are visiting, hailing from locations under 5,000 feet—like Riverside (Basin) where the elevation is a mere 3,900 feet? According to head coach Allen Johnson, he’s never known elevation to be an issue for their visiting opponents. Whether elevation was a factor or not, the Wranglers were impressive in their 31-0 shutout over the Rebels from Riverside. Further, for this 52-year-old who normally resides at 4,300 feet, I felt there was a formidable difference when I ran my routine eight laps at the track the next day in Pinedale.

Lastly, in all of my visits to various small town high school football venues, Pinedale’s Sonny Korfanta Field was my first with artificial turf. A Pinedale statistician on the sidelines told me he expects more schools around the state to install artificial turf in the near future. If that’s the case, one has to wonder, which school will be the first in Wyoming to have a non-green turf?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

More Brawls In The Beartooths... please

Tyler South by mdt1960
Tyler South, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Four years ago I ventured down to Texas to see some real six-man football. It was the first week of the season and a little town called Jayton was hosting an entire day of six-man football games—four in all, that started at 10:00 in the morning and finished with a night-cap game featuring the hometown team. It was called the Jayton Gridiron Classic.

I remember thinking back then, “Montana should do something like this for Class C—eight-man and/or six-man.”

A year later, Ennis (fresh into their first eight-man season in years) hosted a double header featuring Absarokee and Philipsburg in the opener and the hometown Mustangs taking on White Sulphur Springs for the nightcap. Thoughts of Jayton the year before came back to me, but it just wasn’t quite the same.

This past weekend, Absarokee did the same thing that Ennis did back in 2009 except they took it one step further. Their eight-man double header was given a name: The Brawl In the Beartooths. And they did one smart marketing trick: they included a game between two teams that are expected to do well this year—Fairview and Ennis.

If you ask me, the folks in Absarokee are on to something—and hopefully something even bigger next year. Absarokee is one of those great football locations with a nice flavoring of tradition too. And, what better place to begin a new season of football.

Perhaps next year’s “Brawl” will be like Jayton’s four game juggernaut. And why not include a game or two of six-man action as part of the lineup? “Brawl In The Beartooths” T-shirts? Oh yeah!

BTW: The Jayton Gridiron Classic runs the course of three days now and has expanded to seven games. This year's dates are August 30 – September 1.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

All-Stars Shine One Last Time

Sticker Exchange by mdt1960
Sticker Exchange, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Unlike most football games of Class C nature, I decided not to take my camera equipment to the Bob Cleverley Class C Eight-Man All Star game this past weekend in Butte, Montana… although the gear was in the car had I changed my mind. “To shoot or not to shoot,” was something I’d been mulling around all week prior to the game and the final decision didn’t come until I surveyed Alumni Stadium on the campus of Montana Tech in Butte.

As expected, I found the setting to be an exalted version of what is typically a modest and humble game played in places like Centerville or Scobey—which is a key attraction for folks like me. Yet, the All-Star “shoot-out” in Butte, with its JumboTron and a cream-of-the-crop roster is OK—in the same way that the prom doesn’t represent a typical day of school. And besides, isn’t it always nice to give the students a taste of what it feels like to be important and dress up accordingly (assuming that is your understanding of high school proms)?

So, I just sat back and watched the game much like everyone else. I did use my camera phone a couple times (for the above image too), but no more than anyone else who had such devices in the stands. Here are a few things that came to me as I soaked up the night.

I’m not sure which side (the Red or Blue) was the more spirited, but I’m pretty sure the folks from White Sulphur Springs cheered the loudest for their all-stars Cy Williams, Keith Forkin and Tyler West (along with coaches Barry Hedrich and Pat Morris) whenever they were introduced or made a big play.

One might think that having the game in June is a bit “non-representational” of autumn weather, but give Butte credit for making sure the evening felt like typical fall weather (even if the sun didn’t set until the third quarter). I should have brought a blanket to wrap myself in while watching the game.

As far as the game’s outcome (which is probably the least important revolving around this event), the Blue (West/North All Stars) must have noticed a chink in the Red (East/South All Stars) armor as they took a seven-point advantage at halftime and ended the game with a 49-22 victory. Some may have been surprised given the Red included state champions Twin Bridges and and runner-up Fairview. Yet, this was a game of seniors only. And for all we know, perhaps the Red simply had more fun during their week of camp prior to the game.

As the game unfolded, I couldn’t help but think several times that this particular game would be the last game of organized football for many of these talented and athletic young men. So, it was gratifying to see five-foot-six-inch, 120-pound, Superior running back Matt Campbell slip into the end zone one last time despite the stiff opposition coming at him from all angles during the game.

Next year… I suspect there’s many of us out there who would like to attend both all-star games when it comes to Class C. So, why not hold the six-man contest on the first Friday of June and then have the eight-man game the following night. What a fun weekend of travel and football.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Miner Story

Final Minutes by mdt1960
Final Minutes, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
I’ve never seen Centerville lose… well, not until this year. In ’99 they defeated Denton at home for all the marbles and then I saw them come from behind against Hysham in the 2004 playoffs (when Hysham was an understaffed, but tough eight-man team). Then I witnessed the Miner’s miracle state-title victory over heavily-favored Wibaux in 2006 followed up by a 2007 regular-season game on the road in Sunburst. There might be another C-ville game I attended, but I can’t be sure.

However, as mentioned above, things are different this year. I witnessed a Miner loss at Power against the Titans a couple of weeks ago and then again, this past weekend in their first-round playoff game against top-seeded Fairview.

In deciding which of the sixteen Class C games (both eight-man and six-man) to attend in Montana this past weekend, it was a tough choice that had nothing to do with seeing a particular team play—it was about the matchups. I knew the number-twos versus the number-threes would provide the most promise of excitement, but I started looking at the number-ones versus the number-fours and reckoned that Centerville would be the best challenge for any number-one seeded team.

Of course, I looked right past the Mustangs of Ennis and their excursion to Superior.

Yet, somewhere in the back of my mind I ascertained that the day would come when I’d see the Miners drop a game, but certainly not two in the same season. Because of this (and other questionable logic), I reckoned that Centerville had a real chance in Fairview based on the above… and three other factors. First, Centerville looked tough at Power even though they were eventually overrun by the speed-prolific Titans. Second, I reckoned that the Warriors of Fairview had only been tested once—against Wibaux, and rumor was that the Longhorns weren’t completely healthy when the two Eastern Conference powerhouses faced off at the end of the regular season. Lastly, Centerville’s skipper is Ted Richards, a seasoned eight-man coach who can take a bunch of average athletes and transform them into state contenders in no-time flat.

Centerville Vista by mdt1960
Centerville Vista, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
As it turned out, my logic fell a bit short. Centerville was dominated by Fairview from the get-go, and it probably didn’t help that the Miners started the first quarter working against a stiff Eastern Montana wind. By the time the first quarter was over, the Warriors had already racked up 28 points. (Driving back from Fairview Saturday evening, I found myself wondering how often coaches have instructed their captains to choose the wind direction over kicking, receiving or deferring when the coin toss is won.)

Despite my poor football logic, I feel pretty confident in saying that if Fairview can play their remaining games as they played against Centerville, it will take a monumental effort to defeat them—on their home turf no less. I’m a believer now.

The Future of Mining
In visiting with a few Centerville fans who made the long trip to Fairview, I was saddened to learn about the low student enrollment projections for future classes which means that Centerville might have to consider playing six-man someday. Typically, I don’t find such news too disturbing, but when a team like Centerville—an icon in the eight-man ranks—has to consider this scenario, it hurts a bit. That said, compared to no-man, six-man is always a nice alternative.

As I made my way down I-94 with this on my mind, I considered placing an advertisement in the Great Falls Tribune that attempts to persuade young couples with children living in the sprawling metropolis to consider the nearby “bedroom communities” of Centerville, Sand Coulee, and Stockett as great places to raise a family. This advertisement would also include an invitation to visit Coach Ted Richards about the football program.

Well, the good news for now is that the Miners are a young team. Of the 23 listed on the roster, 10 are sophomores. But, after that I’m told the numbers start dropping fast. Likewise, Fairview has a huge junior class with 13 juniors out of 24 on their roster. So, if the Warriors can’t be stopped this year, they might make next year look even easier.

I don’t like to cheer or favor any one team, but if a gun were held to my head and I had to pick one, Centerville would be way up there on my list. It’s a great location for a game as the gridiron is tucked away in one of the hidden coulees of the area and there are no floodlights, so home games are always on Saturday afternoons. Further, the Miners have always been a scrappy, no-nonsense team much like the Nittany Lions of Penn State.

The Last Play by mdt1960
The Last Play, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Every team has their moment in the sun even if some get more exposure. But one thing is for sure, no school is always dominant—not even the (current) best known programs like Drummond, Wibaux, Denton or Centerville. Sure, they might remain competitive in most years, but despite the high-caliber coaches and steady flow of good athletes, none are invincible as we saw in Superior this past week. And like it or not, every school spends some time as a non-contender (even if some spend more time there than others). It’ll happen someday. One season in the future, a team like Shields Valley will win the state title while a perennial power like Wibaux fails to notch a victory. Hasn’t it happened already?

As fans of the game, the loudest cheer should not be for our favorite team, but for the small town football programs like Centerville; that they will always have a school with enough kids to field a competitive team. It’s a wish that goes on and on, and hopefully fulfilled even after we are all gone.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Winning With Gardiner

End Zone Seats, Second Deck by mdt1960
End Zone Seats, Second Deck, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
It wasn’t in my long-term plan at the beginning of the football season, but I’ve seen the Gardiner Bruins play twice this year. Once in Harlowton, and the other day on their home field against Broadveiw-Lavina. Both times, the Bruins lost. In fact, over the years I’ve seen them play several times either away or at home, and I’m pretty sure, they’ve never won in my presence.

Perhaps for their sake, I’ll stop attending their games just in case I’m the cause. Yet, like all football teams, good and bad seasons come and go. No doubt, Gardiner will be a contender again before long—perhaps even notching another state title in a few short years.

Keep in mind, the Bruins did win it all in 1997 and have seen limited playoff action in recent years. So, it’s not like Gardiner has a bad gene pool when it comes to football players.

Regardless of the team’s win-loss record, Gardiner is one of the great places to watch a game. There are no lights, so almost all home games are played on Saturday afternoon with Electric Peak looming over the gridiron (weather permitting). Rumor has it, even bison from nearby Yellowstone National Park have been known to show up for a game. And after the game, you can get a great bite to eat at Rosie’s CafĂ© or wander in the Park for the remaining few hours of daylight… talk about a double feature.

As I get older, I find myself more frequently considering those places in the country where I might retire. Of course, one of my conditions is that it must be a small town and there must be a high school football team in the community. For those two reasons alone, Gardiner might be on my short list when it’s time to make that decision.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

A Montana Football Thoroughfare

191 Stretch by mdt1960
191 Stretch, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
The following was written last year, but was never finished and thus never posted. After a recent trek up U.S. Highway 191 recently, I was reminded again of the many drives up and down this stretch of highway—going back to 1999.

September 2010

Even though it was the last official weekend of the summer, a touch of autumn was already in the air. Earlier in the week I had noticed a smattering of yellow leaves here and there within the trees of town and now, as I was making my way through Bridger, Montana on an early Saturday morning, the bank clock told me it was 39 degrees.

Continuing on up the road and approaching Laurel, Montana, I was thinking about the “regularity” of these trips into Montana to attend the football games in the state’s various small and obscure towns. One of those regularities had to do with where I found my second cup of coffee for the morning—lately it has been the City Brew in Laurel, Montana, just before I jump on Interstate 90 and head east or west.

There were some great games that weekend. Scobey at Wibaux, Harlowton at Joliet, Ft. Benton at Chinook—even the Powell Panthers (my town) were undefeated and on the road in Buffalo to face the equally undefeated Bison.

Nevertheless, I choose to attend an off-the-radar game in Moore, Montana where the winless three-school co-op of Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap faced the Refiners of Sunburst who hadn’t notched a win either.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Driving toward Moore that day, I considered another regularity in these Montana junkets—U.S. Highway 191. I started wondering how many times I’d been up and down its asphalt—maybe three or four times a year over the course of some ten years adding up to 30 or 40 roundtrips. Was it possible?

Titanettes by mdt1960
Titanettes, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
For the record, U.S. Highway 191 is the main north-south artery to access many of the places where small town high school football is played in Montana. Starting with Harlowton, other game locations I’ve attended in the 191-vicinity include Moore, Hobson, Stanford, Geraldine, Highwood, Centerville, Geyser, Belt, Fort Benton, and Denton.

For me, U.S. Highway 191 begins in Big Timber, Montana—a place that acquired its name from Lewis and Clark as they gathered timbers to build rafts for their float down the Yellowstone River. From Big Timber, 191 is pretty much a straight north-south run with nothing but the foothills of the scenic (and usually snowcapped) Crazy Mountains and wide-open spaces farther north. There are no other communities that warrant a reduction in the speed limit until Harlowton, approximately 44 miles straight up 191.

Making up for the lack of human activity between Big Timber and Harlowton, any given traveler at any given time is likely to see mule deer somewhere along that 44-mile stretch—most likely just beyond Big Timber. I refer to that section of highway as “Deer Alley.”

Years ago when I was on my way to attend a six-man game in Geraldine, I left Powell on a Friday night with a motel reservation in Stanford. I followed a duel-wheeled pick-up truck out of Big Timber that Friday night, but I didn’t keep up with him. Somewhere in the foothills maybe ten miles up the road, I came across a sight I’d never seen—the fresh, fragmented and scattered remains of what was probably a mule deer that could have doubled as a suicide bomber. I attempted to slow my vehicle down as it started sliding on the animal’s spilled blood frozen to the cold highway. Fortunately I managed to maintain control of my car despite the steaming carnage. I half expected to find a wrecked pick-up somewhere off the road, but there were no signs that it had even passed through nor did I ever see it again. From that point, I easily remained wide-awake, driving through the dark Montana night and on to Stanford.

On any given road trip, the music of Mary Chapin Carpenter is a steady diet for my ears. On this particular day, her song “Alone But Not Lonely” grabbed me like no other time in the past. Its cello stirred me while the singer’s soothing voice ached with a question of who I was in my solitude on Highway 191. On that particular day I could definitely answer that, yes, I was alone, but hardly lonely in these wide-open places of Montana.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,


Harlowton (or “Harlo” as some call it) might seem bleak in its first impression, but I have grown more comfortable with each visit to this football enclave. Whether camping in my truck at the rest stop/campgrounds by the rodeo grounds, or getting my morning cup of joe at the Snowy Mountain Coffee Shop, I seldom just drive through this community. Cruise down Main Street to the old Graves Hotel and you might find yourself fantasizing about purchasing and fixing up that historic landmark. Of course, Harlowton has been a terminal destination as well thanks to the Harlowton Engineers eight-man football team, and few football fields in the state are better illuminated than Harlowton.

Seven Bines in the Sun by mdt1960
Seven Bines in the Sun, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
As you take the next section of Highway 191 out of Harlow, the Judith Gap Wind Farm awaits you. The highway splits the collection of giant turbines giving the traveler a feeling of smallness. The first electrical power started flowing from Judith Gap in 2005. Some might claim these monstrosities ruin the scenic value of such locations, but given a choice, I’ll take the clean symmetry of a wind farm any day over the chaotic and dirty clutter of equipment associated with a gas or oil field operation.

Past the wind farm and into the tiny town of Judith Gap, a milkshake is in order from the Judith Gap Mercantile if time permits and it’s the right time of day.

For me, something in the landscape… something in the world starts to change as you make your way north from Judith Gap. This is a magical place… a place where the sagebrush begins yielding to the winter wheat… where the light is different because the sun’s angle is lower.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.


Five miles off the highway between Judith Gap and Eddie’s Corner is the town of Buffalo with its five residents. If you have the time, have a look around this town that once was. It’s about as close to a ghost town short of actually being one. The old bank building and school are worthy of a visit—if nothing else to only stare and wonder.

Officially Highway 191 picks up again on its northern direction at Lewistown, but for me it ends near the town of Moore where it meets Montana State Route 200. This junction is known as Eddie’s Corner—named after the one business that provides round-the-clock meals, gasoline, a lounge and a handful of windowless motel rooms. Although Moore is not far away, it is out of sight, rendering Eddie’s Corner more like an outpost on the frontier.

Before embarking on my return down 191, I often have a meal at Eddie’s Corner following a Saturday afternoon game in the area and listen to the other customers talking about the various football games they attended that day from all over the state. Thanks to Eddie’s Corner, I usually know about the outcomes of two or three other football games before I ever read about them on the Internet or newspapers.

Two Roads... by mdt1960
Two Roads..., a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
—Robert Frost