Thursday, March 24, 2005

Sheridan's Valor

Sheridan Stops Mason
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
The Northern Rocky Mountains dominate the horizon in every direction around towns like Sheridan, Montana. It's probable that such backdrops motivated the territory's settlers to come up with this naming of America's fourth largest state. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 659 people call Sheridan home. I haven't walked the streets there, but I've seen their high school football team play twice in as many weeks. If you plopped me down in the middle of town and removed my blindfold, I wouldn't know where I was, but I'd recognize the Sheridan football team in their practice uniforms on any given gridiron.

My introduction to the Sheridan Panthers came last week when I saw them play in the first round of the Class C Eight-Man playoffs at undefeated Alberton. As they assembled on the field in Alberton for warm ups, I thought of them as lucky to even be in the playoffs. Early in the regular season they lost to a mediocre team from Noxon, and then in the last game of the year, they were pummeled by undefeated Drummond. Turns out they were the only team to tally any kind of score against Drummond during the entire season—a meager, single touchdown.

In last year's playoffs, Sheridan faced an undefeated and colossal team from Harlowton, beating them in the first round and finally bowing out in the semi-finals to the eventual state champs from Scobey.
By the end of last week's game with Alberton, I could see they were a gutsy team with plenty of heart. Many people like myself didn't believe in them, but they clearly believed in themselves as they smothered Alberton's hopes for a state title, providing the only blemish to their near-perfect season. As ironic as it may be, but Harlowton came to know Sheridan in the same way last year—maybe it has something to do with towns that end with "t-o-n."

Like many distinguished teams I've seen in the past, Sheridan does not make a memorable first impression. I recall my introduction to another notable team from Cokeville—title holders of the Wyoming Class 1A three years running; I thought they were a junior varsity team. Six-Man powerhouse Geraldine also seemed very average at first glance. So, here was this team from Sheridan—few in numbers, and not one guy on the team weighed over 200 pounds. In fact, most of the starting players were within 20 pounds of each other. I reckoned they were all capable of playing in each other's positions. They were the most homogenized team I'd ever seen.

I wasn't very keen in travelling the 300-plus miles to Big Sandy for their quarterfinal playoffs game against Sheridan. However, of all the games that Saturday, Big Sandy was the only field I hadn't visited, and I felt compelled to get another Montana Class C location listed in my football travels.
Nevertheless, it was hard to get excited to see two teams play that I'd seen in the recent past—Sheridan just the week before at Alberton and earlier in the year I'd seen the undefeated Pioneers of Big Sandy play in one of their many lopsided victories at Heart Butte. The Pioneers were impressive, but it was difficult to gauge the depth of their talent against a team that was no match for them.

If I were attending for the sheer rush of a game's excitement, I probably would have opted for the battle of undefeateds between Drummond and Belt over Big Sandy's contest with Sheridan. And this is what I have to deal with almost every week: my ongoing, internal struggles in deciding where I should go vs. where I want to go when it comes to small town high school football.

Over the past seven years while chasing down the varied small town high school football games, I've often come to these crossroads regarding game selections. Time and again it seems like the game I choose is influenced by some kind of project objective, but is often the least appealing while the most attractive game has more promise of excitement or possibly more at stake in its outcome. Yet, I've never walked away disappointed from any of the games I chose with my head rather than my heart. Usually something unfolds that I never could have predicted, thus justifying my decision.

This past week's game between Big Sandy and Sheridan was no exception. Although Big Sandy's victory was no surprise, I came away from the game completely won over by the scrappy team from Sheridan. They provided the finest display of tackling and defensive pursuit I'd seen in years. Big Sandy possessed at least three starters that were clearly larger than any of Sheridan's players, yet the Panther defense was relentless and ferocious in their gang tackling and laser-guided hits on the Pioneer ball carriers. Apparently no one told them that Big Sandy was a larger team. I imagine the undefeated Pioneers never felt more beaten following any of their previous victories.

When the final seconds ticked away on the game clock in Big Sandy, the scoreboard displayed 32-14 in favor of the Pioneers, but in my opinion, Sheridan was the better team pound for pound. Perhaps they only lacked that one stellar member on their team that would give them an edge, but none could be exploited as a weak link in their chain of play. They were a solidified and complete eight-man team. Their downfall on that Saturday for the most part came from offensive misques and turnovers.

In true small town football fashion, Big Sandy's coach Scot Chauvet made a point to visit the somber huddle of Sheridan players after the game and spoke graciously about what a class act they brought to the game. He told them how he prepared his team for Sheridan during the previous week, warning the Pioneers of Sheridan's big-hearted playing style. He also conveyed to the defeated squad that they had no reason to hang their heads low—they had played a great game.
At the other end of the field, the Big Sandy celebration was growing, and it was clear Coach Chauvet was expected to be there. So, off he went after his brief but profound speech. I wish he would have stayed longer—long enough to look each Sheridan player squarely in the eye as he spoke because his words rang so true. In his hurried state, I could only hope the coach's comments were interpreted as forthright and sincere rather than a passing and polite gesture.

Sometime next summer, I think I'll wander over to Sheridan and have a look around for an hour or two. I can't imagine such a visit will clear up or explain any particulars regarding the 2003 Panther football team, but at least I'll feel like I have some authority when I speak of their playoff valor. (—November 2003)

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Highwood's New Lights

Ekalaka Lights
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
The night Highwood hosted Geraldine in the annual six-man battle of Chouteau County, I found myself driving in from Great Falls. I had been to Rocky Boy earlier that day for another six-man game and with ample time on hand, I decided to check into my hotel room in nearby Great Falls.

After freshening up a bit in my room, I headed for Highwood—a short 30 mile trek. The darkness was rapidly taking over the grayness from that rainy day and by the time I reached the outskirts of Great Falls, my Mazda rocketship was heading into one of the darkest sectors of the universe. The rain fell steadily on that messy night—reminescent of my youth in the cold and dank winters of Northeast Ohio. Conditions seemed to deteriorate the farther I drove from Great Falls. Fog settled in thick patches along the route—some so heavy, it seem as though I was driving blind.

Through my peripheral vision, I remember detecting a faint light in the black abyss surrounding me as I focused on the road ahead. When I looked in the source's direction, I saw nothing—as if a glowing spaceship attempted to stay hidden in the netherworld before me. But the soft light became stronger despite the thick fog as the road drew me nearer to Highwood.

Had I been a stranger to these surroundings, I would have thought something fantastic was unfolding up ahead—something the world would read about in the newspapers the next day. And though I knew its source, a mysterious quality radiated from the new gridiron lights at Highwood. Like the star that guided wise men to Bethlehem, these lights formed a single beacon guiding all fans of the game to this gridiron shrine of six-man football.

Many other games were played that same night all over Montana, but Highwood's newly lit gridiron proved the most brilliant of all diamonds laying on the state's bed of black velvet.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Almost Augusta

Practice Field
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
We first heard about it from the woman at the coffee shop in Townsend, Montana. After gathering up our bedding from camping in our car, we stopped at the combination copy and coffee shop for a hot cup of joe. She inquired about the plans we had for our Saturday and upon hearing we were off to see a six-man football game in Augusta, she recounted the grim story from Augusta she had read in yesterday's paper. From her recollection, a coach up there killed himself after a heated argument with his wife that included a stand-off with the local law enforcement authorities. She didn't know for sure if he was the head football coach, but she was confident he was a football coach.

Following our visit, I purchased a copy of the Great Falls Tribune to see if there was anything more about the tragedy especially if it had any bearing on the scheduled game that day. I wasn't about to drive any farther for a football game that was canceled. All kinds of thoughts went through my mind. How could something this tragic happen in one of the communities where six-man football dwelled? The innocence of small town high school football in Augusta would undoubtedly be shattered by such a tragedy. Then I considered if I still wanted to travel to the strickened community wielding my camera and looking like a member of the paparazzi. Inevitably I would be written off as a vulture who simply came to record the disheartened faces and shattered lives of a community attending their football game where the departed coach was to direct his team.

As it turned out, there were follow up stories in the day's newspaper. Yes, it was the head coach. He and his wife did have a heated, late night argument that resulted in violence. At sometime around two in the morning on Thursday, she went to a neighbor's home to call the police. After several attempts to make contact with the coach, the police finally entered the home around 11:00 a.m. only to discover his body with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Despite the Augusta schools being closed on Thursday because of the suicide, the decision had been made to go ahead with the upcoming game against Rocky Boy.

Under these new and unusual circumstances, I pondered whether a visit to Augusta was appropriate. On one hand, I'd been told it was one of the more scenic areas of Montana and if that was the case I was eager to photograph a game there. Yet, a part of me thought it might be best to leave this community to their grief in the context of their last home football game—outsiders like myself probably wouldn't be appreciated.

Nevertheless, we headed for Augusta.

Shortly after our arrival, I decided against photographing the game. In addition to the unusual circumstances resulting from the suicide, I found the football field surrounded by the clutter of residential and commercial buildings—preventing me from capturing any clean shots that might include the scenic landscape beyond the town's perimeter. However, I noticed the practice field behind the school and walked on over to find it in the setting that I had hoped for regarding the game field.

The local community started to trickle in for the day's game as we drove away. I felt the stars were pulling me away from Augusta—at least this time around. Luckily I recalled an alternative to salvage the day—a late-starting game in Alberton at 3:00. So, we made a beeline for Missoula and beyond—arriving 20 minutes before the start of the Class C eight-man playoff game between Alberton and Sheridan.

Postscript: Augusta 95, Rocky Boy 0