Friday, October 30, 2009

Now's The Time

Sangrey Crosses Over
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Go ahead, pick a town—make it one of the smaller towns in Montana and treat yourself to all of the charm it offers along with the friendly individuals that call it home this Saturday—Halloween. While you’re at it, consider one of those listed below where you can double your fun by taking in a classic small town football game.

I’m heading just up to the road to Joliet, Montana to watch an eight-man game where the J-Hawks take on the Scobey Spartans who are making a pretty significant road trip from way up in the northeast corner of Montana. This trip will be nothing for the Spartans given last year when they travelled all the way to Superior, Montana—less than 50 miles from the Idaho border.

If Joliet is a bit too far from your home, consider these other towns where you can watch an eight-man or six-man playoff game.

Way Up North
Starting up north there is Centerville (not far from Great Falls) where the Miners are hosting the Victor Vikings. The Miners are always tough at home, this week will not be an exception. One of the things I love about Montana football playoffs, because the state is so big, often two schools will face each other for the first time in history. That could be the case in this match-up.

The Big Sandy Pioneers will be welcoming the Bridger Scouts in a rematch of last year’s six-man playoff game. The massive grain elevators adjacent to the gridiron make for a classic small town backdrop. I wonder if U.S. Senator John Tester will be in attendance cheering on his hometown team.

There’s also a game in Charlo—a nice detour on your way to Flathead Lake. The Vikings of Charlo will be facing the co-op of small schools from Power, Dutton and Brady. I have yet to attend a game in Charlo.

If history is your thing, you might want to swing down to Fort Benton (not far from Great Falls too) to visit the bridge over the Missouri River and the gravesite of the dog that defined “man’s best friend,” Shep. While your there, the Longhorns will be hosting their first 8-man football playoff game against Arlee. It wasn’t too many years ago that Fort Benton won the Class B 11-man title.

How about an out-of-the-way location like the little town of Denton where their six-man football team is undefeated and hosting Terry? Check out the hardware store in Denton—they have it all, packed tightly into the space of a Dairy Queen.

If you live in Great Falls and want that small town feeling without really leaving the comforts of the big city, I suspect the six-man game between Great Falls Central and the Custer-Melstone Cougars might be the ticket.

Go West
Western Montana, are you kidding!? If you’ve never been to Drummond, this is your chance. A football game at Drummond should be on any football junkie’s bucket list. Another strong Trojan team will be hosting the Wolves from Stanford (and Geyser). Stanford seems to have all the luck these past few years—sooner or later they face Drummond in a playoff game, and... well, they’d probably just assume not.

Purple Camo Brigade
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Down in Sheridan, the purple-clad Panthers will be entertaining the also purple-clad Cowboys all the way from Culbertson-Bainville near the North Dakota border. Many of the Sheridan fans will be decked out in their special-order, purple camouflage clothing—and if you ask nicely, they’ll even let you take their picture.

Perhaps you’re thinking about a trip through Yellowstone. If that’s the case you can double your money because the Wolverines of West Yellowstone are hosting a six-man game against the North Star Knights consisting of players from the tiny towns of Rudyard, Kremlin and Gildford (along Montana’s Hi-Line).

Last but not least is Lima, Montana—down on the Idaho border with the Bitterroot Mountains serving as a majestic backdrop. Rather than Lima High School hosting the game, the home team will be the Clark County Bobcats (of Dubois, Idaho—that’s right an Idaho team in the running for the Montana State Championship). The Cats are taking on the Reed Point-Rapelje Renegades in Lima because all Montana playoff games must be played in Montana and Lima is just over the border from Dubois.

Back East

Prairie Eruption
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Speaking of bucket lists, the same is true about a game in Wibaux—the Beast from the East. The Longhorns have one of the most successful active coaches year after year in Jeff Bertelsen and are hosting the Harlowton Engineers. After the game, I recommend a stop at the Rainbow Club for a cold one and old reruns of past Wibaux State Championship games.

Further south along the North Dakota border you’ll find Ekalaka (sometimes it’s just fun to say “Ekalaka”) way down in the southeast corner of the state and there the Bulldogs of Carter County will be hosting the Falcons of Twin Bridges. It’ll be along bus ride for the Falcons from the scenic Ruby Valley whether they win or lose.

Where the Yellowstone River turns north and approaches the Missouri River you’ll find the sleepy town of Savage where the Warriors will be hosting Augusta. The Elks have advanced deep in the six-man playoffs the last couple of years and put together a good following of fans no matter how far they have to travel.

A little farther west and north and truly out of the way is the town of Winifred. The Red Raiders are facing another isolated town’s football team in the Jordan Mustangs—maybe we should call this the “Obscurity Bowl.” Both of these teams just moved down from eight-man play in the last year and have made the adjustment without a hitch.

If Billings is home for you, this weekend might be your excuse to finally venture to Hysham. The Pirates are undefeated and their fans know how to throw a pre-game tailgate party. The Tigers of Geraldine and their stellar six-man football program are in town to take on heavily-favored Hysham. But, one should never count out Geraldine Head Coach Rod Tweet and any team he brings to a football game.

There you have it, 16 different towns (and all small with the exception of one) offering 16 different games—all starting at 1:00 on Saturday. I’d like to see them all, but there’s something very pure and honest about choosing only one and going for it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Idaho... Barely

Mullan Townscape
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
I love vertical towns like Mullan and Wallace, Idaho. By “vertical” I mean that they are located in narrow valleys with mountains rising up from every direction. Such towns resemble a childrens’ illustrated book and always feel a bit more cozy than other places in the world.

Both Mullan and Wallace have a population under 1,000 and are only 10 miles apart. One can find a good cup of coffee in either town and both communities field eight-man football teams that play each other twice every season.

This past week I travelled to Mullan to sit in on their game against another rival; the Clark Fork Wampus Cats. My travelling companion, Slim, and I went round and round on what a Wampus Cat might look like and how it came into existence. Slim’s theory had to do with the mingling of spieces—a Wombat (a burrowing plant-eating Australian marsupial that resembles a small bear with short legs) and a Bobcat (a small North American cat species with a barred and spotted coat and a short tail). According to Slim, this cross-breed of marsupial and feline is man-eating to boot. My theory on the Wampus Cat was more streamlined than Slim's. Basically I placed it in the same category as the Wyoming Jackelope—a mythical animal cross between an antelope and jackrabbit). After a quick search on the web, it appears my theory is probably closer to the truth although I never would have guessed six legs.

I don’t know what the total mileage was, but it was about a nine-hour drive between home (Powell, Wyoming) and the two Northern Idaho communities—which was more than enough time to discuss the evolutionary origins of the Wampus Cat.

We started our Mullan trip on Thursday afternoon and despite the dismal weather forecast, we made it to the Capri Motel in Uptown Butte without incident sometime after 8:00 p.m. that evening.

Friday morning—the day of the game in Mullan—we rose around 5:30 to about five inches of fresh snow and extreme cold conditions in Butte. It was difficult to imagine attending a football game at that point. To dampen our spirits even more, we were greeted with disappointment when we drove to the M&M bar and grill for breakfast to find it had been closed and up for sale. The M&M is a Butte landmark—famous for its late-night fights and delicous but greasy breakfasts the next day that includes a red beer or two—tomato juice and beer, the perfect cure for a Butte hangover. Last year while campaigning for his Presidency, Barack Obama visited the M&M, but I’m not in the know as to if he had a red beer.

Mullan Teacher Gary Strong
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
After gathering ourselves from the devastating sight of the boarded up M&M, Slim and I discovered Annie’s CafĂ© over on Front Street. Although there were no red beers served, the breakfast was equal to any M&M breakfast I've had over the years while Annie herself had ample attitude to chase off our M&M blues.

When we slipped over Lookout Pass that defines the Montana-Idaho border, we gained an hour of time leaving us with almost three hours to explore Mullan before game time.

Waiting for us in Mullan was Slim’s friend Charleton from nearby Sand Point. “Chuck” is a coffee/espresso hound who drives a Volkswagon van equipped with a stove and bed and occasionally carries around a Leica camera that doesn't get used nearly enough.

With the extra time on hand, I walked the streets of Mullan looking for images of a great small town which included a visit to the high school to chat with principal Tom Durbin and a couple of Mullan teachers. Meanwhile Slim and Chuck located and secured the local coffee shop—The Bitterroot Coffee House. What a great find that turned out to be. I’ll just say here that if you’re passing through Mullan someday, make the Bitterroot Coffee House your first stop.

Mullan Gridscape
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
It’s hard to miss the Lucky Friday Mine on the east side of Mullan. It is one of several operations owned and operated by Hecla Mining and is a deep underground silver, lead and zinc mine. There are over 250 employees working at the Lucky Friday and it’s no surprise that the mine employs many residents of Mullan. Check out their website and the video on the Lucky Friday. I hope to return next year and photograph former Mullan players who are now working for the Lucky Friday—assuming some are there.

Then, there was the game. The Mullan Tigers hosting the Clark Fork Wampus Cats. For this eight-man football showdown, Mullan dressed out ten players while Clark Fork fielded thirteen. Unlike Montana eight-man football, Idaho eight-man games are played on a 100-yard field giving it a six-man feel thanks to the extra width and length of field.

Mullan sophomore quarterback Casey McKinnon and Clark Fork senior running back Chance Nesbitt provided plenty of the offensive fireworks for both teams, but it was Mullan who notched the victory when the game ended that day.

Even though snow was falling as we crossed over Lookout Pass, none found its way to the gridiron that day. Nevertheless, as the sun sank lower into the southwestern sky, the cold worked its way to my bones and by the end of the game, all I could think about was finding the warm comfort of a motel room in nearby Wallace.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Propping Up The Pronghorns

Pronghorn Herd
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Even though they are athletic enough and have enough numbers to be competitive, the Farson-Eden Pronghorns may not win any games in Wyoming’s first season of six-man football—but, I still like them and I hope they prove me wrong.

Their lackluster season of wins versus losses is only a reflection of the team’s deficiency in football experience as every member is playing their first year of football—ever. And sadly, but not surprisingly, it shows. They struggle with the basics such as snapping the ball to the quarterback, hand-offs, tackling, passing and catching the ball—even running in football gear seems a bit clumsy. In short, they are one awkward looking team when they are competing on the gridiron, which is a bit odd because when they take the field, they look as physical and capable as any other team.

I still like ’em.

My hope for Farson-Eden is that the winless season staring them down now doesn’t discourage them nor their community. Farson-Eden represents everything I love about small town high school football in America. They are the poster child of this niche culture in my mind’s eye. Their community is remote and small while their old football field behind the school is reminiscent of a Field of Dreams. Although they did not play any games on the old field this year (they retrofitted the city park baseball field), I hope the school and community consider sprucing up the old gridiron with its south end zone vista gazing into the big empty of the high desert that surrounds Farson.

Steve Amrine
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
If they haven’t already, I’d like to believe that the Farson-Eden teams of the future will take their mascot name to heart in considering the Pronghorn Antelope’s attribute of speed in a game that typically anoints the fastest rather than the biggest as victor. [For those who might not be in the know: the North American Pronghorn Antelope—Antilocapra americana—is the fastest animal in North America.] With this in mind, I can’t think of a more perfect mascot name for a six-man football team playing in the American West. Therefore, beyond winning, the Pronghorns of Farson-Eden should make it their mission to be known as the fastest in Wyoming’s assembly of six-man football teams. (On a related note, given the great numbers of antelope throughout Wyoming, I’m surprised there aren’t more schools that have adopted the Pronghorn as their mascot.)

Everyone in America likes a winner, but Americans love a come-from-behind, down-and-out, Rocky Balboa-type winner even more. As Wyoming six-man football establishes itself, I hope some version of that script finds its way to the Farson-Eden Pronghorns.

Postscript: As long as I’m here, I’d like to extend my apologies and sympathies to Farson-Eden’s Tom Smith. Although he is one of their most athletic players, in the two Pronghorn games I’ve attended, he has sustained game-ending injuries both times—a badly sprained ankle at home against Guernsey-Sunrise and a separated shoulder in Meeteetse. I think my presence is bad luck for them.