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 nation.com. 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 nation.com'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.