Saturday, November 25, 2006
In the early minutes of the game—I think it may have been the second play—Wibaux grabbed an interception and the next thing I knew they were on the scoreboard. "The romp is on," I said to myself from the hillside.
I came so close to attending the Highwood-Roberts six-man title game which was probably only a 45-minute drive from Centerville, and as Wibaux drove in that first touchdown, I was practically kicking myself for my final game selection of Centerville over Highwood.
Nevertheless, I had made a thoughtful and informed decision. I'd been thinking about it all week and even as I drove off in the wee early morning hours on Saturday, I was still considering which game I would attend since they were both in the vicinity of Great Falls.
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In the first place, I had attended at least two games at both locations going back to 1999, so I wasn't hurting for images from the Highwood or Centerville gridiron.
I also toyed with the idea of driving to Highwood to shoot the first half of the six-man title game and then speeding over to Centerville to watch the eight-man title game conclusion. After all, halftime for the six-man game at Highwood would likely come earlier than the Centerville-Wibaux game because each quarter is two minutes shorter—this would also buy me more time in the drive between games. Despite this logic, it made me feel cheap because I was opting for quantity over quality. Further, I tried this same experiment last year with a game at Rapelje against Ten Sleep (Wyoming) and another game at Park City against Winifred. When I arrived at the second game, there was only seven minutes remaining because Park City was clobbering Winifred which resulted in a running clock.
Another thing I considered was the team match-ups at Highwood and Centerville. Early in the year I attended the Roberts-Highwood regular season game held at Roberts—a damn good game to be sure. Although Highwood won, it was closely contested; so close that I reckoned Roberts could win if they played again. So, if I desired an uncertain outcome, than Highwood was my choice. However, as I mentioned above, I had my doubts about a well-contested game at Centerville. Yet, Centerville and Wibaux never see each other during the regular season. In fact, the only other time I know they've met was in 2000 for a semi-final game. Thus, there was a certain mystical attraction in the contest—kind of like Dracula vs. Frankenstein or Jason vs. Freddie—even if I was certain of the movie's ending.
Thanks to my early start, I arrived at the Highwood turnoff around 10:30 a.m. for a game that wasn't starting until 1:00 p.m. and I still hadn't made a decision regarding which game to attend. With the excess time on hand, I decided to drive on towards Centerville and have a look around the surrounding towns of Sand Coulee and Stockett which also contribute to the contingency of Miners from the "tri-town" area. Despite attending two other Centerville games in the past, I'd never travelled beyond its gridiron. Following my tour of the area, I would drift on over to Highwood for the actual game if that was my inclination.
Walking around in the "downtown" area of Sand Coulee, I approached the town paramedic/EMT who was preparing to depart for the football game. Standing next to his truck while he smoked a cigarette, I finally asked him directly, "So, why should I attend this game over the game in Highwood?"
He paused a moment and then told me about "some F-14s" that would be flying over just before the game started. Initially I was humoured by his reply, but more importantly, I was finally swayed in which game to attend.
Sure, it's no big deal when a bunch of fighter aircraft buzz a major college or professional football game, but flying over an eight-man football game was rare in my book. Truly, this could be one of those small town moments. I made my way for the Centerville gridiron and confirmed my tip with the athletic director after I paid my six-dollar admission. Afterwards I positioned myself on the hillside with a camera that I considered would capture the moment and setting as I scoured the horizon for the incoming F-14s.
Keeping my vigilance, I felt a bit inadequate with my miniscule Nikon camera, especially since I didn't even know the direction of their approach. I knew there wouldn't be much time if I had the luxury of seeing them close in on the venue—even less time if they came from over the hill behind me. For a moment, I sympathized with the Iraqi army back in those early and glorified days of the "war on terror."
At 12:50 p.m. I spyed two, fast-approaching bogies and within seconds managed to peel off four shots before they were out of sight. I didn't even have time to make a positive I.D.—friend or foe. Now I know what a poor soldier I would make… shoot first and ask questions later.
Regardless, it was "mission accomplished" and kick-off was only moments away.
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Well, I'm hardly a sports writer, but the whimsical happenstance (despite my attempts at logical reasoning) that brought me to Centerville resulted in one of the most exciting football games I had ever witnessed—at any level of the game.
Following the second Wibaux kickoff in the early minutes of the game, I was taken back when Centerville marched the football down the field and tied the score. Not only that, they made the two-point conversion and grabbed the lead. I was amused. "Well, at least it won't be a shut-out," I said under my breath from the hillside.
The visiting Longhorns came right back with another score on a long pass to their swift halfback and regained the lead, but failed again to make the conversion. And as the first quarter came to an end, the Miners answered back with a long pass of their own and suddenly, I found myself attending the game I thought was to be found only in Highwood.
In short, I was stunned and remained so throughout the game especially when Centerville was up 42-20 early in the fourth quarter. Even a few players from Chester J-I (who represented the only team that had faced both teams; Centerville during the regular season and Wibaux in the playoffs) were somewhat shocked. But just about when I thought there was no hope for the Longhorns, I was stunned again when Wibaux came storming back while the Centerville passing game fell oddly silent.
The momentum of the game had shifted to Wibaux's side and with less than two minutes remaining in the game, Wibaux miraculously tied the game to send it into overtime. At that point I was sure the Longhorns would win the game, but even so and regardless of the outcome, this was far from the game I had expected. Then I considered either team receiving the runner-up trophy—it didn't seem fair.
Overtime in Montana playoffs is settled by each team having four downs from their opponents ten yard line—reminiscent of extra innings in a baseball game. If neither team scores, they each receive another set of downs until the tie is broken.
Centerville won the coin toss for overtime and chose to defend first (just like the home team in a baseball game). And in that first set of downs during overtime, Wibaux's momentum was suddenly neutralized when they lost a fumble near the goal line.
Centerville's offense started with a sputter of their own in that first possession of overtime. On second down—out of the shotgun formation—the Miner quarterback missed the ball as it passed between his legs, but he recovered it back on the 21 yard line. As it turned out, this loss opened up the passing lanes between the line of scrimmage and the end zone, and on the next play he found one of his favorite receivers in man-to-man coverage with a perfect strike over the middle in the end zone.
As the setting sun drew closer to the horizon, I witnessed the mingling of emotional extremes. The yellow-clad jerseys of the Wibaux team—some still lying on the field from the play that just ended the game—were engulfed by the black-clad fans and players from Centerville pouring on to the field to embrace the player who caught the winning pass and his other teammates.
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On the drive home, I thought about those exhilarated hometown fans at the Centerville Bar or The American Bar in nearby Stockett. Perhaps I should have lingered a bit to witness the merriment. Nevertheless, the further I drove into the night, I found myself thinking more about the defeated Wibaux team instead—the Pittsburgh Steelers of Montana 8-man football.
The week before I sat in Wibaux's most popular watering hole, the Rainbow Club, where locals watched old videos of past title games on one of the TVs. It was a reminder of how many titles the school had claimed over the years and how high the locals held up those championship teams. Certainly this group of players wanted to be counted amongst those elite title teams of the past as well. "Weren't they as good," I asked myself, "Don't they deserve to be included in that elevated group even if they came up short in overtime of the title game?" Former player and assistant coach Travis Nellemore could surely speak to the question. If I recall correctly, he played on teams that won the state title and lost the state title games. I'd like to think that whatever he said to the Wibaux players—perhaps from the darkened interior of the humming bus as it glided eastward down the lone highway—somehow shortened that long drive home.