Monday, November 24, 2008

A Championship Sabbatical

King Of West Yellowstone
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Not since 2002 have I missed a Wyoming or Montana high school championship football game—that was the year that I dedicated myself to following the Belfry Bats to everyone of their games, including their playoff game in Geraldine. Once they were eliminated from the playoffs, I thought it was only fair that I removed myself from the season as well.

This year, my excuse for missing a title game isn't as convincing, certainly not as clear.

Because I've been to plenty of big games in Wibaux and Geraldine over the years, I'd guessed the scenery in either location wouldn't be too different with the exception of uniform colours and fans (from a photographic perspective). Yet, the football lover in me found Superior at Wibaux too good to be true—it was the ultimate in "East Meets West" because when it comes to Montana, there aren't too many places further west of Superior while Wibaux is the last stop in Eastern Montana before crossing into North Dakota. Despite my reluctance to hit the road, I found myself restless during mid-week. Wide awake at 2:30 a.m., I was considering the idea of driving to Laurel and loitering along Interstate 90 in an effort to capture the Superior team bus crossing the vastness of Eastern Montana with its small entourage of fans and parents in tow.

Highwood at Geraldine tempted me too. Earlier this season, I had received my wish to witness and photograph a typical Highwood vs. Geraldine shootout (read about it here) and so, like a fisherman who had caught the ultimate fish, I didn't want to be greedy by casting my line back into the water. Besides, there are those image-rich photographic moments when one should simply put away their camera and let someone else have a go at it. The same held true of the game in Wibaux.

Even if I had decided to make another title day pilgrimage, not long after leaving the semi-final game in Superior last week, the early signs of a head and chest cold surfaced and by mid-week, I was completely inundated. Without fail it seems, every year I get one of these during the season, but never this late. Undoubtedly it's a good thing I hadn't planned on going anywhere, otherwise I would have really been either bummed or just plain miserable.

Despite the lingering cold symptoms, it was weird Saturday morning to be up and about, putzing around the house at my leisure with nothing to do and nowhere to go—not on the way to Geraldine or not in a motel in Miles City preparing for the remaining drive to Wibaux.

I'm already looking forward to next year's offering of six-man football in Wyoming and all its new photographic venues such as Farson, Kaycee and Baggs. No doubt, my travels into Montana will likely suffer, but given that Montana's playoffs usually run a week longer than Wyoming, I'll probably be in one of Montana's Class C towns at this same time next year.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Smash-Mouth Euphoria

Picture Perfect Kick
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
It was another one of those playoff weekends when there are heaps of potentially well-contested games all over the place and I'm faced with a gridiron location to photograph where I've never travelled.

I had considered travelling to Superior for the Class C eight-man game with Absarokee, but rain in the forecast made me think twice—and one doesn't think twice when a long road trip like that comes up.

Games in Denton and a return trip to Bridger were calling me too, but a nagging little conscious kept on reminding me of the Wyoming 2A semi-final game in Big Horn (near Sheridan) against Lusk.

I'd visited Big Horn's gridiron a couple summers ago and found it right up there with Tongue River's old field in terms of a landscape setting for football. But many BHHS games are played on Thursday and Friday afternoons (no lights) which make it logistically impossible for me to get over there for a game. So along comes a playoff game at Big Horn on a Saturday—how could I live with myself if I passed it up?

Holding On
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Despite the overcast skies, the setting didn't disappoint albeit the game was one of those typical 11-man defensive slugfests. Only one touchdown was notched the entire game—Big Horn 6, Lusk 0. Surely if one is a fan of either team, it was a very exciting game.

Walking back to my car after the game, I wondered what fireworks I missed up in Montana's Class C ranks of eight-man and six-man. I thought about all the snobby, armchair quarterbacks in the world that go on and on about how superior eleven-man football is to eight-man or six-man. I was ready to take them to task.

In the early morning when I stopped at the Maverick store in Bridger, I'd heard about one of the Montana six-man headlines from the night before. The employees there told me about Reed Point-Rapelje downing Hysham on the Pirate's home field! What other big news went down while Big Horn and Lusk smash-mouthed each other to a near stalemate?

With Sheridan in my rear-view mirror, I fantasized how the game would have gone if Big Horn and Lusk had played an 8-man game. It didn't seem to fantastic considering each team fielded between 30 to 35 players. Those were the same numbers posted by several Montana eight-man teams like Absarokee or Drummond. Still, the game would have been close, but I doubt it would have ended in such a low score.

Since I've never been to Superior for a game, next week I'm looking real hard at getting my eight-man fix there—regardless of the long drive or any bad weather.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Living Up To The Rivalry

End Zone View
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
The first time I witnessed the battle of Choteau County (aka Highwood vs. Geraldine in six-man football) was on a cold and rain-soaked Friday night at Highwood in 2004. The Mountaineers were loaded with talent that year and easily defeated Geraldine in the last game of the regular season and went on to win another state title.

I remember walking away from that game with my soaked camera gear thinking that it wasn't exactly what I expected when considering past games I 'd heard about (or imagined) between these two schools—games that were played under a bright, blue Montana sky and were fiercely contested.

This past weekend I decided to give this contest another try—especially after hearing the game was scheduled for Saturday afternoon at Highwood despite their well-lit gridiron that catered to Friday nights.

Jump BallOriginally uploaded by mdt1960
With the exception of a blustery and continuous wind, the 2008 Geraldine-Highwood grudge match lived up to its billing in my head. Both teams were clearly talented and not until Highwood depleted themselves of downs deep in Geraldine territory with seconds remaining on the clock did the fans in attendance realize the game's outcome.

So, congratulations to the Tigers of Geraldine in their 22-18 victory over Highwood and congratulations to both teams for securing home-field playoff berths. Most of all, congratulations to both teams for living up to their great rivalry.

Having travelled to Texas earlier this year to see how the Lone Star state does six-man football, I truly believe in my heart—given the gridiron settings of both Geraldine and Highwood— that I can say, "You still haven't seen six-man football until you've seen a Highwood-Geraldine game."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Elements of Football

Little Lambeau
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
If this past weekend's three football offerings had to be summarized in one word only, it would be "winter."

With only a third of October in the record books, an early winter storm moved in late Thursday evening and dominated the scenario in the three-town, two-state itinerary I threw together. First there were the snow flurries and blustery cold wind in Burlington and Byron, Wyoming. Saturday afternoon in Fromberg, Montana was the cherry on top of the sundae. I wondered if I would even complete the typical one-hour drive as the falling snow went from light flurries to heavy flakes between my home in Powell and the gridiron in Fromberg. By the time I reached the Falcons' home field, there was about five inches of wet snow covering the turf—complete with coaches and other staffers who were hand-shovelling the snow covering the yard line and sideline markings.

Beginning Friday afternoon in Burlington, it was a battle of 1A powerhouses (the smallest schools) between the Burlington Huskies and the Panthers of Cokeville. Given Cokeville's extreme location (on the Idaho border), it's usually a long road trip for their away games. I'm guessing the travel to Burlington was easily over six hours. Despite such disadvantages, the Panthers are always in the hunt of the 1A state title—often the victor. In contrast, Burlington has struggled over the years when it comes to games with Cokeville, but on this past Friday the difference was Burlington's successful PAT conversion following their only touchdown while Cokeville came up empty-handed after their single touchdown.

Cokeville Hoods
Originally uploaded by mdt1960

* * * * *

Typically I don't drive home after Friday night football games, but Rocky Mountain High School in nearby Byron, Wyoming is the one exception because it is only 15 miles from home. It's been 11 years since I first attended a football game at Rocky—where this modest project all started. On this particular night, I was curious to see Wind River play again after attending one of their home games earlier this season.

In what was probably attributed to the foul weather conditions, attendance was poor compared to other games I've attended in the past. Most notable however is little has changed in this small football venue—especially the lights. They seem dimmer than ever. From a photographer's perspective, I'm guessing Rocky's lights are at least three f-stops dimmer than the average illuminated gridiron. Imagine going to a well-lit football field wearing sunglasses.

Lights Of Byron
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Forty non-quartz (old school) bulbs illuminate the entire 120-yard field (end zones included) at Byron—that's four poles of lights on each side of the field, each pole holding five bulbs and their corresponding reflectors. The scoreboard is bright enough to count as a ninth set with its multitude of tube lights used in the making of digits in the south end zone.

In the darkness of the last quarter I decided to put away the camera and have the quintessential small town football experience—watching the game from the inside of my truck. As the engine idled away providing ample heat in the cab, the cold wind continued to blow across Rocky's muted gridiron.

The game's outcome wasn't a big surprise. Wind River easily won, although it wasn't until the second half that they finally controlled the game. The last time I looked on the scoreboard from the truck it was 36-6 with 11:52 remaining in the game.

As I drove back to Powell, I fantasized about spearheading an effort to raise money for the installation of bright and modern lights at Rocky Mountain. Given what other people spend to attend big-time college or professional games, I reckon I'm good for the first $100 toward such a cause. Are there any other takers out there?

* * * * *

Traveling to Fromberg on Saturday, my intentions earlier in the week were two-fold as I planned for a game between the neighboring schools/towns of Fromberg and Bridger—less than ten miles apart from each other.

First, I wanted to see if Bridger was as good as their record indicated.

Secondly, I suspected that this meeting on the gridiron might have been rather historic given that for several years the two have played together as an eight-man co-op. And when not sharing a team, Bridger was playing eight-man while Fromberg competed at the six-man level.

When I awoke on Saturday morning to a couple of inches of snow on the ground and more falling, I considered the two games from the day before at Burlington and Byron to be good enough and I'd simply stay home. Fortunately, I reconsidered the possibility that the game in Fromberg might look something akin to what was out my window. My only fear was driving the 60-some miles and discovering upon arrival that the game was cancelled.

In deciding to live life on the edge and completing the drive to Fromberg, I learned that Bridger is indeed a solid six-man football team and will likely go deep in the playoffs. My guess is they can play at the same level as Hysham, West Yellowstone, Geraldine and Lambert. It might come down to the team that can stay injury-free during the playoffs.

Face Mask
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
When asked about the last time Bridger and Fromberg competed on the same football field, no one seemed absolutely sure, but most thought it had been only eight years. I was hoping to hear that it had been something like 30 years.

Finally, the snow. It was awesome. Never have I witnessed a football game under such conditions... much less photograph it. Fortunately the game-ending injury to Fromberg's Andrew Wallman won't be the lasting memory from that day for everyone involved. Knowing he will only miss a few practices, perhaps both teams will look beyond the victory or defeat and simply remember the game for it's pure sense of frolic and romp on the snow-covered gridiron.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Big Game Small Town Magic

Who Won?
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
In chasing down the big games of small town high school football, I'm always amazed at how it can grab you and sweep you up despite the high gasoline prices. Compounding that, I've had a couple of e-mails recently reminding me of the big games that I should consider attending this coming weekend—Twin Bridges at Sheridan and Hysham at Lambert are two such big small-town games that have been brought to my attention.

Sadly, I'm off to Chicago for a conference that has nothing to do with small town football or photography and won't return until sometime Saturday afternoon, after all the games have passed.

It is at times like this when I need to remind myself (as in this writing) that small town high school football is more than just the "big games." In the spirit of Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land, Small town high school football is also the jovial hamburger crew at Drummond working the outdoor grill. It's the rag-tag assembly of musicians—students and locals—that make up the band in Stanford even if they never march. It's the announcer at Rosebud who only has a bullhorn. It's four referees instead of five. It's the grade school kids playing on the hillside at Harlowton, Noxon or Hays. It's the cars on the hill overlooking the gridiron at Sunburst as they sound their horns and flash their headlights following a Refiner touchdown. And sometimes it's simply gazing up to watch the clouds as they move across the Big Horn Mountains near Dayton during a time out.

Die Hards
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Last week, I finally made it to Pavillion, Wyoming to attend a Wind River football game. It probably wasn't considered a "big game" regarding it's importance in... say, Wyoming 2A football, but it was big to me. A couple years ago I drove there to watch a game only to find out that it was held the night before (here's the full account of that fiasco). And now, this season, in true small town fashion, the floodlights at Wind River were severely damaged from a big wind storm earlier in the year, forcing a rescheduling of their Friday night games to daylight hours. Who knows when I'd have another opportunity to photograph an afternoon game in Pavillion again?

That was big enough for me.

* * * * *

Since I won't have any particular game to blog about next week, I'll invite/challenge anyone who attends a "big" game (however one defines it) to post their observations below in the comment area. Along with the games mentioned above, Scobey is off to Wibaux, Big Horn is at Wind River in a battle of 2A undefeated teams, Custer-Melstone will play Bridger for the first time while Grass Range is traveling all the way to Meeteetse, Wyoming for a first time showdown as well.

If you go and choose to write about one of these games (or another), tell us what happened, but more importantly, tell us about the small town magic you experienced.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Small Town Showdowns

Originally uploaded by mdt1960
While walking around before the game, I overheard someone say that this was considered the "game of the week" by six-man It seemed reasonable even if it was the third week of the season. I considered the declaration a bit premature regarding the Montana Class C six-man game between the West Yellowstone Wolverines and the visiting Pirates (and defending state champions) of Hysham. Nevertheless, West Yellowstone had clearly captured the attention of many Montana, Idaho and Wyoming small-town football followers in the first two weeks of the season—defeating perennial six-man powerhouses Highwood and Custer-Melstone. People like me questioned West Yellowstone after the Wolverines defeated Highwood in the first week. "Maybe Highwood is simply down this year," I said to myself. But after defeating Custer-Melstone convincingly, all of us probably started to wonder: What are the chances of two strong teams being down in the same year?

And Hysham? They only lost one starter to graduation (Kyle Strickland) from last year's championship team, so it seems safe to say they are a given power in any Montana Class C six-man mathematical formula.

Wolverine Profiles
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
When West Yellowstone took the field, I was surprised in their numbers and size—reminiscent of last year's Augusta team. And like last year, when Hysham's modestly sized "dirty dozen" finally appeared from the locker room, I'm sure few West Yellowstone fans were afraid for the home team. But this time I wasn't going to be fooled. If I were betting, my money was riding on the Pirates.

Hysham did come out on top, 34-27, despite the lightning-delay and greasy field conditions from the day's precipitation—surely it toned down their notorious speed a notch or two. They dodged a bullet to be sure. Following the game, a friend said to me, "I imagine many teams will be placing an asterisk or two next to West Yellowstone's name on their schedules."

And let me be clear, it was a very, very good game!

Perhaps the Pirates won't look back on the contest and consider it one of their best days given the fact that at least two West Yellowstone turnovers were squandered and a couple of key passes were dropped. Yet, they did what a true champion often does—they found a way to win even if it wasn't pretty or convincing.

I'm unsure how West Yellowstone will look back on their setback. If nothing else, their coach may have said it best after the game, "We just scared the shit out of last year's state champs." Perhaps they did. Even so, the Wolverines certainly proved they can be just as scrappy as Hysham. Down by three touchdowns in the third quarter, they came back in the final quarter within 7 points and recovered a textbook onside kick in the final minute that, if they had capitalized, could have made it a one-point game or perhaps even won the contest if they converted the PAT. However, Hysham's scrappy character shined through as well, holding the Wolverines when it counted. Just too many "if"s in that earlier sentence.

Some probably walked away from the game thinking this year's state title will be a rematch between Hysham and West Yellowstone. I won't be surprised if that's the case, but I suspect the current unknowns of Lambert, Bridger, Geraldine, and Roberts would also like to make a statement or two about who gets to play on that last weekend. And I'm not ready to count out several others after only three weeks of play including Highwood, Augusta or Meeteetse.

Wolverine Fans
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
One last thing—maybe this is a "heads up" to the good folks at West Yellowstone. Two years ago I attended an early season game at Roberts when the Rockets hosted the (then) defending state champs from Highwood. The Mountaineers of Highwood squeaked out a 36-32 victory—thanks in part to three Roberts touchdowns that were called back for penalties. Afterwards, I felt sure that if they met again in the playoffs, Roberts would prevail. As it turned out, they did end up meeting in the title game only Highwood won the contest convincingly, 48-12. So much for crystal balls and six-man football.

Postscript: After the game, while the two teams were having a final huddle on the field, fans from West Yellowstone formed two lines that funneled towards the locker room. I saw it as a final tribute to their team and their extraordinary effort on the day. However, Hysham started towards the locker room before West Yellowstone and I thought to myself, "This could get ugly" as Hysham approached the reception of Wolverine fans. Thankfully, in true small-town fashion, I didn't hear one negative comment—just a lot of "Good game Pirates" followed by the polite response coming from the Hysham players, "Thank you."

BTW: I went to six-man's web site and didn't find anything about yesterday's game—just a bunch of very dated stories and information.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Small Town Football: A Native Game?

PreGame Helmet
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
It was a question that only 643 miles of driving might be able to answer. Still, I wasn't so sure.

It goes something like this: By and large, schools with a majority of Native American students are typically in the hunt for state basketball titles in any given class during any given year, yet the same is not true under these circumstances when it comes to the game of football. What explains this?

I had hoped the answer would be revealed to me by simply watching an eight-man football game between two small town schools with a majority of Native American students—Hays-Lodgepole and Rocky Boy. If the answer was in the game itself, I was too blind to see it. So, during that eight-man game I posed the question to a few people I met up with.

Rocky Boy Pursuit
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Depending on who you talk to, will depend on the answer you hear. And I've heard my share of different answers coming from Native and non-Native viewpoints—not just this past weekend either, but over the years. One person wondered if basketball was more like a game that was played in the Americas before the White Man came on the scene—thus explaining its popularity. Another person (an educational administrator) explained that organizing/coordinating 11 players was asking too much from a group of Native American students. He explained to me, “They want to win, but they don’t want to put in the time/practice. They have to be so much more talented than other teams to make up for their disorganization.” Many non-Native arm-chair quarterbacks seem to think that Native Americans aren't disciplined enough to attend regular practices and thus execute complicated football plays, which made me wonder how a team could pull off winning a state championship in basketball if they weren't disciplined about attending regular practices.

Allowing for my own arrogance in taking a stab at the question, I'd say Native American kids aren't hostile or militant enough when it comes to football, especially as I watched both Rocky Boy and Hays-Lodgepole warm up before the game—talk about a laid back pre-game. I was reminded of a backyard pickup game rather than a hotly contested rivalry, which admittedly was a bit refreshing. But hell, what are my formal credentials when it comes to the game of football, let alone Native Americans?

One of the assistant coaches at Rocky Boy responded to my query this past weekend, and I think he answered it best—or at least what made sense to me. It has to do with tradition. When it comes to the small town schools on the Indian Reservations, basketball is more established and accepted because it has been around much longer than football. Take Hays-Lodgepole for example, football didn't come on the scene until 1975 while basketball had been established decades earlier. Parents and grandparents played basketball, but not necessarily football. Basketball's long-term existence has resulted in a certain attitude/environment where almost everyone encourages the youth to play because the parents and grandparents played when they were young too.

Highwood Fans
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Back in 1999, I saw a very competitive Lame Deer team defeat perennial powerhouse Highwood in the six-man quarterfinals—on Highwood’s home field. The following week, they lost their semi-final match to West Yellowstone largely attributed to a key player injury. I've been haunted by that team since—waiting for another Reservation school to match or best the 1999 Morning Stars. I feel certain it is bound to happen in the not-too-distant future—and more frequently—as more of today's young Native American students discover and consider the option of football related to their own specific skills and athletic abilities.

If football truly has gained a toehold in the small schools of America's Reservations, I suspect the Native American players, coaches and teams will develop their own knack and style for the game much like they have in basketball. And with a bit of luck, perhaps we'll see more and more Native American teams vying for conference and state titles in football as well.

I look forward to the day.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Texas... Finally

Taking The Field
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
I've always been somewhat afraid that a Texas football fan would discover my blog and photos and denounce my work because I had never attended a game in Texas. No more... they'll have to find some other flaw if they wish to do so now.

After more than three years of thinking about it, I finally committed myself to visit West Texas and take in their version of small town high school football, aka six-man football. I wish the journey could have come about on someone else's nickel, but dishing out the expenses for a round-trip airfare to El Paso, car rental, 1,100 miles worth of petrol and a couple motels along the way was still worth it. All of this with threatening rains and overcast skies standing by in one of our country's driest and sunniest regions.

Countless alumni of great football universities throw away much more money on any given autumn weekend to see their favorite team in action compared to my modest investment, and they only get to witness one football game.

After spending Friday in Sanderson, Texas for their opener against the Grady Wildcats, I drove over 300 miles in my rented Ford Fusion to attend the Jayton (Texas) Gridiron Classic the next day. The Gridiron Classic consist of four games of six-man football starting at 10:30 in the morning with the last game commencing at 7:30 in the evening.

Think about it... five Texas six-man football games in two days! Did I luck out or what?

Raider Interference
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
My luck can be whittled down to the fact that I chose the first week when these football "marathons" are held in the Lone Star state. As I found out later, there were other locations that same day hosting day-long football events too. Two others I heard about were in Trent and Hico—both featuring six-man games too.

One might be wanting to ask about now, "So, is Texas small town football different than what you've seen in Montana or Wyoming?"

Given the fact that there are over 100 six-man football teams in Texas, it shouldn't come to anyone's surprise that I probably witnessed at least one team that would likely defeat a six-man state champion hailing from Montana or Wyoming. That's simple math.

Yet, I suppose what impressed me the most were the facilities I saw in places like Sanderson and Jayton. In short, it's safe to say that Texas spends more money on high school football than Wyoming or Montana. So much, that even the small town schools don't feel so "small town" when it comes to attending a football game.

Further, as I headed back to El Paso on Sunday, I stopped in several other West Texas towns along the way to view other facilities as well. One town that stood out was Kermit (pop. 5,367). Kermit is about the same size town as Powell—where I live. But Kermit's stadium dwarfs Panther Stadium (here in Powell) and is easily larger than Daylis Stadium in Billings, Montana where the big AA schools of West, Senior and Skyview play.

Originally uploaded by mdt1960
I'm still recovering from the Texas five-game kickoff to the 2008 season—to the extent that I chose to stay home for the first week of games in Wyoming and Montana. With any luck and a little more rest, I should be up for a trip to Victor, Montana next week where the Vikings will be hosting the defending Class C eight-man state champions—the Drummond Trojans.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Earthquakes In Coaching

Originally uploaded by mdt1960
At 48-years-young, there's not much news out there that really surprises me anymore. At least that's how it seems.

Nevertheless, when I travelled to Highwood, Montana to photograph their six-man football team during their preseason practice and conditioning drills, I was totally blindsided when Highwood's new head coach Bart Hawkins informed me that Mike Nelson—Highwood's notorious head coach for the past 17 years—had left education as well as coaching.

My first reaction to the news was that of embarrassment because I hadn't heard, and—worst yet—I had mistakingly said "Good morning Coach Nelson" to assistant coach Dan McGee upon my arrival thinking he was Mike Nelson. But when Coach Hawkins informed me that Nelson's resignation had only become known to the public about three weeks ago, I felt a little better. Yet, I was still a bit upset with myself that I hadn't heard about this big story in the world of six-man football before making the 300-mile drive.

And big news it is. Consider Nelson's resume: During his tenure, while teaching mathematics, his teams notched ten Montana state titles—10 state titles, 17 years! No other six-man football coach in the country can make the same claim. His overall record was 133-22 including eight undefeated seasons. I suppose I was lucky to witness one of those rare losses back in 1999.

How could he leave with so much going for him? Even the most successful football coaches feel the everyday pressures that build up if not addressed. According to the Great Falls Tribune, Nelson's departure was a combination of wanting to spend more time with his family, escalating gas prices that made his 60-mile daily commute from Great Falls prohibitive and a new job offer that came along at the right time.

It's all good in the end. A new coach (Hawkins) gets to step up to the plate and show the world what he can do as well. And so a new chapter begins at Highwood High School.

Oh, and what's the new job for Mike Nelson you might be wondering? He's going to become a pharmaceutical salesman for an international healthcare company... Talk about a total change of direction.

Well, he's only 40-years-old and who knows, the coaching itch might need scratching again someday so, I'm not writing him off completely. Regardless I wish him the best of luck—however he may define it.

Postscript: As of the 2011 football season, Mike Nelson is now the skipper of Great Falls Central Catholic—a member of Montana Class C Eight-Man's Northern Conference.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Season Cometh

The Season Approaches
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Football season... it's nearly here.

I'm looking forward to visiting a few new small town football venues including Sanderson, Texas where the Eagles have maintained a pretty high profile when it comes to competitive six-man teams in the Lone Star state. After ten-plus years of small town high school football in Wyoming and Montana, I reckoned it was time to see the Texas version. This will be a personal record... over $400 (airfare to El Paso and car rental thus far) to watch one high school football game—not even a playoff or title match.

Why Sanderson? I'm hoping the setting of this little West Texas town will provide the backdrop that I've grown accustomed to in Wyoming and Montana. Besides, how credible can this body of work be if I've never seen a game in Texas... especially a six-man contest?

Then there is Victor, Montana—home of the Pirates competing in the Western C eight-man conference. I'm hoping to attend one of their two home games as well. Not a short drive in the context of 2008 gas prices. And I thought Sunburst was a long and expensive drive last year...

A little farther down my list are games at Culbertson-Bainville, Medicine Lake-Froid, and Lincoln in Montana. In Wyoming, there is Wind River in Pavillion—that place has been calling for years.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Kansas Small Town Football

Arthur Locker
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Here is a nice little slideshow from last season produced by the New York Times about Smith Center, Kansas (pop. 1,931) and its successful high school football program.

This image is from a six-man game I attended in Arthur, Nebraska (pop. 145) a few years back.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Football Greatness: A search for its source

Highwood Mountains Network
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Just past the urban landscape of Great Falls, are the Highwood Mountains—a small outcropping and detached portion of the Northern Rockies and a mecca of sorts when it comes to six-man football in Montana. These mountains serve as the "backyard" to the two small towns of Geraldine and Highwood where 18 of the past 20 six-man titles games have included one or both of these two schools—often resulting as champion and runner-up in the same year.

In all of Montana, the fourth largest state in the U.S., these two communities are both located in Choteau County with only 30 miles separating them. However, most fans (and team busses) traveling between the two towns for the annual rivalry, drive a longer and smoother route because the shorter 30 miles connecting Geraldine and Highwood is an obscure and rugged dirt road—over and through the Highwood Mountains.

Highwood (pop. 189) is tucked away and hidden within the folding landscape of foothills and coulees—you never see it until you're practically there! The climb into the mountains from Highwood is almost immediate. A sense of refuge and wonderment surges the further one climbs. Descending from the other side, Geraldine (pop. 284) resides on the exposed and tapering prairie of wheat fields adjacent to the steeper slopes and is easily visible for miles as one approaches.

On Thanksgiving Day in 2002 after Highwood defeated Geraldine in the title game, I decided to travel the dirt road connecting these two towns to see if there was some magical or secret connection between the mountains and these two highly successful football programs.

As I drove along the higher elevations of the old road, I found myself looking at the trees carefully, taking note of the sky's colour and listening to bird songs—hoping to detect something different in these elements that might somehow explain why the kids from Choteau County excel in six-man football. I even considered taking a sip of the water from a nearby stream expecting it to somehow taste different than any other water. Gazing over the alpine landscape, I looked closely at several of the meadows thinking that I might discover the markings of a secretive, summer gridiron—a hidden retreat that would allow the two teams to start practice in July rather than August, and without the punishing heat associated with mid-summer temperatures found elsewhere in the state.

I imagined, but found no evidence of the teams riding in a school bus with an entourage of pick-up trucks in tow as they cross the mountain along the dirt road and arrive at some selected spot for a preseason scrimmage in one of the cool mountain meadows.

Yes, that would explain everything, wouldn't it?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Wyoming could learn from Montana: Part 2

Longhorns & Bus
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
I suppose someone has to shout out, "The king has no clothes."

So, in other words, Wyoming has too many classes of football given the few numbers of schools that participate. Count them up: Approximately 57 Wyoming teams participate in five different classes of football—that's a dozen (or less) schools competing for a state title in any one class! Need I mention this only constitutes a big-conference championship in most other states? It's rather laughable to hear of a Wyoming high school tout itself as state champs when they are only the best team in a field of no more than twelve teams. Too bad they can't travel down to Colorado after being crowned "state champs" in Wyoming to compete against the best of their class there.

Nevertheless, a few exceptions come to mind when pondering the watered-down state football titles in Wyoming.

The Cokeville Panthers won the Wyoming 1A title in 2001—the states smallest class of football. However, during the regular season, they also defeated the eventual 3A champions—Big Piney on the Puncher's home field. Surely that was a team deserving of a state title. Unless I'm mistaken, their 2001 schedule also included victories over a couple 2A schools as well.

Another argument against Wyoming's over-saturated classes of football concerns the playoff pairings at the end of the year. Not only do mediocre teams (with losing records) advance to the playoffs, but such dismal numbers in each class result in more rematches when the playoffs finally roll around—it's not uncommon for two schools that faced-off during the regular season to play again in the post-season—the title game included.

This past year, after losing its final game (at home) to Buffalo decisively, Powell High School (and its forlorn 3-5 record) went on the following week to play Buffalo again in the first round of the playoffs—in Buffalo where they lost just as decisively—talk about a waste of gasoline.

In 2004, two of the five championship games in Wyoming were rematches from the regular season. No doubt rematches were seen at the playoff level that year as well. My point here is that every effort should be made to beef up the numbers in each class (if possible) insuring the playoff brackets will be "fresh" in match-ups.

Contrast that to many of Montana's playoff games where the deeper the playoffs go, the more likely the two opposing teams have not seen each other in years—sometimes never, certainly not during the regular season. Rare is the case when two teams that played during the regular season face off again in a playoff game. Such scenarios are an oddity—a hiccup—not the norm. (The only exception to this argument is Class AA—Montana's largest class—which fields only 14 teams.)

At last count, Montana has 150 teams (made up from 176 schools—some teams are co-ops) playing in five classes of football broken down into the following: Class AA-11 (players): 14 teams, Class A-11: 24 teams, Class B-11: 41 teams, Class C-8: 45 teams, Class C-6: 26 teams. That works out to an average of 30 teams per class.

Because they are eight-man and six-man play, these last two classes (Class C) are the key ingredients that set football in Montana apart (and above) from Wyoming's offering of the game—where all classes are eleven-man. Bluntly stated: small towns and eleven-man football don't make for an ideal marriage. Here's why...

When I attended a Wyoming 1A class game back in 2003 between Hulett and Ten Sleep. The two teams fielded less than 30 players—combined! I believe Ten Sleep never had more than two players on the bench during the game. These kind of conditions lead to a game of lesser quality—a product of smaller, underclassmen players starting in a game they typically have no business playing while the better part of their activity on the field is running around and staying out of the way of the larger and older players. In the end what you have is basically an eight-man or six-man game anyway with a handful of inert players on the same field. That being the case, why not play the actual game that is more representative and spare the unnecessary injuries incurred by any smaller/underclassmen players on the field?

Not long after that game in Hulett, Ten Sleep and another Wyoming school (Meeteetse) apparently had enough of barely fielding eleven-man teams year after year only to be thumped each week (expect when they played each other) and jumped to Montana's six-man football class. I suspect both teams have to drive a bit farther for away games, but I'm sure it is worth it now.

* * *

I don't offer any definitive ideas on improving high school football in Wyoming, but I do believe adhering to Friday nights and Saturday afternoons for all games is a step in the right direction. Following that, I suspect formulating a new classification system that has fewer classes would be best. Perhaps a three-class system where the existing 5A and 4A teams are consolidated into one group (Class A) while the 3A and 2A teams compete at the next level of eleven-man play (Class B). Those 1A schools that wish to stay as eleven-man can join Class B as the remaining schools would join the new programs from other small schools making up Wyoming's new six-man league (Class C). Assuming most of Wyoming's existing teams stay at eleven-man play, that would boost the average of the 11-man classes to 23 teams per class and thus providing a sense of respect to any team crowned "state champ" in Wyoming.

You might be asking about now, "Why six-man instead of eight-man?" Although I'm not as passionate about this proposal, I believe it would be the best for those schools that haven't had football programs to start or restart in six-man play and thus create greater opportunities at the small-school level for student participation and, at the same time, provide another worthy local event for Wyoming's rural communities to rally around.

The good news is that discussions are already underway at the Wyoming High School Activities Association (WHSAA) as they consider the idea of starting a sub-eleven-man football conference—undoubtedly inspired by Meeteetse and Ten Sleep. As of this writing, I've learned that a six-man conference is the likely choice. The WHSAA is requiring at least eight committed schools if they are to proceed with this league that would commence in the 2009 season. Let's hope this materializes.

So, what is required of a school destined to support a six-man football team? In a word, numbers. Typically, the schools in Montana that have healthy six-man football programs are endowed with enrollments numbers (grades 9-12) around 40—Rosebud (25) and North Star (83) are the extremes. According to a couple sources, schools such as Kaycee, Chugwater, Little Snake River (Baggs), Rock River, Encampment, Farson-Eden, and Arvada-Clearmont are prime candidates while Ten Sleep and Meeteetse are givens. That's nine possible teams already and surely there are a few others out there that are looking or perhaps one or two of the existing 1A teams are considering the change as well.

Now, if we could only get the school at Jeffrey City to reopen as well...

Perhaps the most significant obstacle in creating this new class will be the entrenched negative outlook that seems to prevail on less-than-eleven-man-play throughout Wyoming. I suppose there are a number of reasons why it lingers—eleven-man football is what the pros and college teams play and is therefore as formidable as any argument needed. Nevertheless, just because a game uses eight or six players to make a football team does not make it inferior—ask any of those schools or communities in Montana who have moved down from eleven-man to eight-man or from eight-man to six-man.

I remember hearing years ago about the dwindling enrollments at Hysham, Montana and the community's reluctance to step down to six-man from eight-man. I suppose the success they experienced at the eight-man level countered the thought of playing six-man. In 2004, Hysham made it to the eight-man quarterfinals with a 12-man roster before bowing out—the result of injuries to key players. As it turned out, that quarterfinal loss was telling about the importance of depth in a football team. Knowing their numbers were predicted to stay down, the Hysham community felt it was in the school's best interest to play six-man football thereafter. After only two years and a school enrollment of 36 (9-12), they won the six-man state title in a field of 26 teams. When I attended the title game in Hysham, I didn't detect any signs of a longing for the old days of eight-man football.

Over the last ten years I've driven all over Wyoming and Montana in search of small town high school football. And each time I pass through Farson on my way to Cokeville, Big Piney or Pinedale, I always think to myself that it's a shame they can't have their own football games. So, imagine my excitement in contemplating the idea of attending a football game in such new and remote locations as Farson... or Baggs... or Chugwater... or Kaycee... or Encampment.

Wyoming six-man football... build it and they will play.