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.
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?
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.