Monday, November 22, 2010

Chinook Surrealism

Sledding Chinookers
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
There’s no getting around it—it was just a weird weekend no matter how I analyzed it. From the 600-miles of treacherous, winter driving to the 74-6 title game score, I couldn’t have imagined anything like it. Maybe it wasn’t a nightmare, but it definitely felt like something out of a strange dream.

Who would have guessed that anyone (even a Class AA team) would have a running clock on Wibaux by the end of the first quarter? Wibaux?!?!?! Had I not attended the game myself, I would have been certain that someone was trying to play a prank on me, or that the newspapers somehow transposed the score.

One friend of mine said in a text message when I reported the final score to him, “That’s epic.”

But, was it epic or was it a hiccup with epic repercussions?

Not to take anything away from the Chinook Sugarbeeters and their convincing victory, but even the handful of Chinook fans I spoke with were a bit shocked by the game’s outcome as well.

They should have been. After all, Chinook was the same team that lost to Fort Benton during the regular season; Fort Benton lost to Drummond in the quarterfinals of the playoffs; and, of course, Drummond lost to Wibaux in the semifinals. Chinook also had a hard fight with both Charlo and Power-Dutton-Brady in the quarterfinal and semifinal games respectively. So, whether or not one believes that Chinook or Wibaux should have won, it’s probably safe to say that most Class C fans thought it would be a closely contested game.

Yet it wasn’t—not by any stretch of the imagination.

Admittedly, I had not seen Wibaux play this year, but few would question any Wibaux team’s moxie this deep into the playoffs.

Horn Feet
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
So, what happened? Why did Wibaux look like toddlers just learning to walk and run while Chinook (for the most part) navigated the icy gridiron with a much higher degree of success?

From my vantage point, it came down to something as simple as football cleats in explaining the huge discrepancy between these two teams. My bet is that Wibaux showed up in Chinook with the same football cleats they had been wearing all season long, while the Sugarbeeters clearly made some adjustments for the ice rink that served as the title game. And, since it was their home field, they likely would have had all week to experiment given the winter weather that finally materialized earlier in the week.

In comparing images from Chinook’s quarterfinal game at Charlo with images from their title game with Wibaux, there are numerous key Sugarbeeter players wearing a different shoe. Most notably, Chinook’s running back, Ben Stroh—the same one who had his way all afternoon with Wibaux—had experienced a footware “upgrade.” On the “normal” field at Charlo two weeks earlier, he wore a typical Under Armour molded-cleat shoe, but his choice of footwear in the “hockey rink” title game at Chinook was an Adidas screw-on-cleat shoe with what appeared to be metal-tipped studs. (More importantly are those even legal? Click on the image below to see for yourself.)

Before the game commenced, Chinook school officials permitted me to walk out on the field as they were clearing it from the accumulation of snow that resulted in the night before and early in the day. In many spots it was like a rough ice skating surface with grass mixed in it—as if the Zamboni malfunctioned while it was smoothing an ice rink. Where the field was void of such conditions, it was hard as a rock. With camera equipment in hand, I gingerly strolled the field and considered the best footwear for the frozen playing surface—hiking boots equipped with crampons or, the next best thing, steel-tipped cleats.

And so it was, one of Wibaux’s worst defeats in history.

Sadly, I left the game feeling a bit cheated—convinced that the cleat choice of the day (or non-choice) rather than pure football talent or play selection was the most influential and dominant factor in the game’s lopsided outcome. I wondered how it was that two teams who had gone so far in the season, playing on the forgiving gridirons of grass were now asked to settle the final contest in alien conditions that neither had seen all year.

I also wondered if this had been a regular season game, would they have still played?

Making Way
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Like that strange dream, here were two teams about to clash for the state title game in a setting that was somewhat surreal. Tents with heaters emerged on the sidelines for each team, motorized equipment was employed to remove snow from the playing surface, the temperature was less than ten degrees Fahrenheit, the field was a frozen, hard surface, players wore extra clothing to keep them warm even if they were active on the field. And most importantly, that one small (nearly invisible) detail regarding cleat selection may have been the most peculiar element of the day.

About an hour before the game commenced, I followed a couple of Wibaux players onto the field as they tested their footing on the icy gridiron. Following a battery of quick accelerations, cuts, sudden stops and challenging each other as lineman do, one of them innocently said, “Man, this is gonna be weird.”

Nothing was more true about the day.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Waiting Game... It's Worth It

Savage Indeed
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Maybe it’s the excitement related to teams who have never battled one another or maybe it’s the opportunity to attend a daytime game where I’ve never been, but I find the height of the Montana Class C (both eight-man and six-man) season comes during those first two weeks of the playoffs—the first round and the quarterfinals. It’s a “rich” time in that there are still so many venues to choose from and often the outcomes are very uncertain.

With the title games on the docket this coming weekend, and the available games are now whittled down to the bare minimum (even if they are the title games), I found myself reflecting on this juncture of the football season while attending the semifinal game at Big Sandy this past weekend.

It seems with each passing year, the ongoings of the other playoff games (i.e., those that are happening at the same time) become more available—even the other classes. For example, during the Big Sandy-Savage six-man shoot-out, we were updated several times by the announcer on the progress of the eight-man game at Chinook with Power-Dutton-Brady. Later we heard updates on the score in the other six-man semifinal game between Denton and Hysham. I suppose we can credit the infusion of cell phones for this effortless flow of scores between the obscure towns of Montana and other western states.

Oddly, there came no word from the showdown at Wibaux with Drummond nor was there anything mentioned about the other class games around the state. I wondered, was this simply because the games that were reported were fairly close by? It seemed reasonable that there might be someone from Big Sandy attending the game in Chinook because their nephew was playing, or something like that. And, wouldn’t Big Sandy have sent a scout to the Denton game should the Pioneers emerge victorious, allowing the scout to call in scores while working up a fresh scouting report on the victor from that game?

Elevator Stage
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Maybe I read too much into this little sidebar of an event. Even so, with improved and more ubiquitous technology and communications, I wonder if the day will come when we will see the scores from other six-man and eight-man games around the state posted on the scoreboards like they’ve been doing for years in the professional stadiums. It seems like a stretch here in 2010, but few of us probably thought cell phones would be so prolific a mere twenty years ago.

As the Big Sandy-Savage game was drawing to its exciting close, we were informed that Chinook had overtaken Power-Dutton-Brady in the fourth quarter and Denton was still in control of their game with Hysham. Despite all of this, after the Warriors of Savage were crowned the victors at Big Sandy, there was never another word on those other games. Walking to my truck afterwards, I kept my ears perked for that one last announcement, but it never came.

Into the Montana darkness and on to Eddie’s Corner, I remained in the metaphorical darkness as well regarding the outcome of those other games. At first I considered checking on-line via my phone to see if the scores were posted, but decided I would wait and hear about the outcomes via the old-fashioned method—reading about them in the next day’s newspapers.

I half expected to hear about one of the other games while eating my dinner at the Eddie's Corner cafĂ©—given it is such a central junction in the state. If that had been the case, I would have welcomed the news.

Nevertheless, after dinner I walked out into the darkest outlying areas of the truck stop’s parking area—beyond the parked semis—climbed into my cold sleeping bag in the bed of my pickup and wondered if Chinook had indeed held their lead after claiming it late in the game. “And what about Drummond and Wibaux,” I asked myself as I set the alarm on the cell phone? Was the Rainbow Club in Wibaux jumping with delight or were they drowning their sorrows again, almost a year later after losing to Drummond at home in the title game?

In an era that is being defined for its instant gratification, I fell asleep at Eddie’s Corner content with the idea of waiting to read about the scores in the Sunday newspapers, and therefore in synch with the rhythms of small town high school football.

Going Deep
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Here’s to the Big Sandy football team in giving the undefeated Warriors of Savage all they could handle. I’d especially like to salute the savvy play of sophomore quarterback Trevor Lackner. He may have thrown three interceptions in battling a swift Savage defense but he also connected two of his four touchdown passes to his “big men.” The Pioneers’ first touchdown came on a 36-yard pass to Dallas Briese—a five-foot, ten-inch, 220-pound junior and later in the game he found sophomore Kaden Beck on a 34-yard strike who stands at six-foot and tips the scales at 260 pounds. It’s doubtful that Briese and Beck could outrun any of the Warriors on the field, but it was Lackner who saw them open and had the confidence to throw in their direction.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Getting Your Six-Man Kicks

Winning Kick
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
I hadn’t seen anything like it since the Montana six-man title game back in 2003 when Geraldine’s Joey Boso went ten-for-ten in kicking PAT’s to lift the Tigers past Custer-Melstone in an 80-78 overtime victory. Even though the C-M Cougars scored more touchdowns in that game, it was Boso’s 1.000 batting average in PATs that made the difference amounting to 20 additional points for Geraldine.

For all of those non-six-man football readers out there, PATs in six-man football are worth two points while running or passing the ball into the end zone is worth one point. After all, what are the chances of finding a kid who can kick a football decently in a town of 300 or so? Add to that, there are only four players remaining to block the defense of six while the ball holder and kicker are occupied with their cooperative task. Nine blockers to eleven defenders (.82) is better than four blockers to six defenders (.67).

Regarding true field goals, they are worth four points in six-man play and up until this past weekend, I’d never seen anyone kick a field goal when it was fourth down—going all the way back to 1999 when I attended my first contest at Reed Point.

It started in Bridger this past Friday night, when Richey-Lambert’s senior kicker Jack Switzer converted six PATs for his Fusion in a first round playoff game. More importantly, shortly before the half ended, he kicked a 20-yard field goal that tagged on another four points to their big lead. Although the field goal was not instrumental in their victory, it was indeed the first I’d stumbled upon in all these years. (On a related note, Switzer also contributed three touchdowns to the Fusion’s victory as he racked up 34 of Richey-Lambert’s 60 points.

From Bridger on Friday night, I was in Great Falls by Saturday at 1:00 for another six-man playoff game between Great Falls Central Catholic and Augusta.

Richey-Lambert PAT
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
Wearing pink socks in support of breast cancer awareness month, Augusta started out strong and kept the Mustangs of GFCC on the ropes for most of the first half. However, by the middle of the third quarter it was clear that we had two evenly matched teams. Late in the game, the Elks of Augusta evened the score at 39 a piece.

Prior to the stalemate late in the contest, the kicking game for each team had barely materialized. Despite having scored six touchdowns each, Augusta and GFCC had only succeeded once in converting their PATs via a two-point kick.

So, as the Mustangs marched the ball down the field with time running out, they found themselves staring at a fourth-down situation in Augusta territory. Normally when a six-man team is in this kind of dilemma, they go for the first down. Further, given that it was so late in the game, I reckoned GFCC had nothing to lose by making such an attempt—whereas if they failed to make the conversion, the game would likely go into overtime.

Instead, GFCC nonchalantly had their star quarterback Derek Moes set up for a field goal from 33-yards out after he had only been successful in one PAT all afternoon. Unlike a PAT, if the kick is blocked, it would be a live ball for an Elk player to pick up and take it to the “house.”

As it turned out, it was a text-book field goal—as if Moes had been making them all afternoon—sealing the victory for the Great Falls Central Catholic Mustangs.

As the ball floated between the uprights and over my head, I stood there stunned for several minutes and considered the high-octane drama of what I had just viewed in this sport’s smallest venue—six-man football.