Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gridiron Harmony: Winning Big & Sportsmanship

Finally Over by mdt1960
Finally Over, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
“Sportsmanship seems to fall by the wayside during the playoffs.” —2012 Montana Class C Six-Man title game spectator

FALL BY THE WAYSIDE: fail to persist in an endeavor or undertaking: many readers will fall by the wayside as the terminology becomes more complicated.

Sometimes good sportsmanship is a dicey thing to define but, if you ever need to see an illustration of good sportsmanship in its purest form, Montana Class C six-man football will likely give you the most prolific demonstration.

I found myself wondering about it as I watched the six-man title game in Hot Springs this past weekend. With a halftime score advantage of 49-0 over their opponent from Big Sandy, the Savage Heat continued to play their starters for the entire game despite establishing an unquestionable superiority over the Pioneers early on. The bleeding finally stopped when the last seconds ticked off even though the scoreboard read 77-0. Thank goodness for the continuous running clock.

From the Montana High School Association Football Handbook: “In Classes A, B or C (8 and 6 player) football game, if at any time the score differential reaches 35 points or more, the clock will not be stopped when: A) The ball goes out-of-bounds. B) A forward pass is incomplete. C) A fair catch is made or awarded. D) A touchback occurs. E) A first down is declared. If the score differential falls below 35 points, normal timing procedures will be utilized.”

Even the Billings Gazette mentioned the lopsided score, citing it as the largest winning victory in a title game, previously held by Moore when they defeated Brady 63-13 in the 1984 six-man championship. However, it fell just shy of the 80 points scored in one contest when Geraldine needed all but one of those 80 points to defeat Custer 80-78 in the 2003 title game.

When I asked a couple of Big Sandy fans about it, they weren’t as resentful as I would have suspected. In fact, the few I spoke with with were downright understanding but, they all agreed that pulling their starters after a big lead would have been their choice had they been the Hot Springs coach—if nothing else to give the reserve players the opportunity to have played in a title game.

Gray Breaks Free by mdt1960
Gray Breaks Free, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Let me say here that I have nothing but respect and admiration for the Hot Springs football team, and I take nothing away from their undisputed Class C Six-Man title. I’ve seen more than my share of six-man championships and this year’s Savage Heat could certainly run with the other past champions.

“It’s a coach’s prerogative,” cited one fan. “But, if I faced them another time and the tables were turned, I’d return today’s favor.”

I was tempted to ask one of the Savage Heat coaches what the motive was for leaving their starters in for the entire game with such a commanding lead but, I suspected that such a query would take away from a coach’s earned championship celebration. Simply put, it seemed like an unsportsmanlike question in the wake of such jubilation.

Ultimately my hope is that there was some hidden or unknown rationale for the apparent sportsmanship faux pas. Perhaps both coaches agreed before the game that no matter the outcome, they were going to play their starters the entire game because it would be their last (at least for the eight seniors from both teams who started). I’d like to believe that this rationale, although not obvious, was the factor in the overstated victory.

For all I know, there had been some trash talk going on between the two teams during the past week via an Internet chat room. That would certainly explain the game’s outcome as well.

Of course, some would say that such scores are often the nature of six-man football which I wouldn’t dispute. Yet, when an existing lopsided score becomes even more acute, it is often the result of the reserve teams adding their own tallies to the scoreboard.

Whatever the rationale behind the “piling on the points” by Hot Springs, I hope there was plenty of good intention behind it as opposed to the annihilation and humiliation of their opponent—which would be a contradiction to one of six-man football’s most outstanding attributes. Mind you, what often appears on the surface and the intentions underneath aren’t always the same, nor are they known by the average fan/spectator during such lopsided matches.

Small town high school football has always reminded me of the stories my father would tell when he played football in the early 1940s; a time when the game wasn’t hyped up, good sportsmanship was practiced by everyone who played, and there was an air of innocence to it—more so than today’s game. And back then, I’m told they didn’t have playoffs. So, after a 7-0 season all one could say was that their team went 7-0, period. There was nothing to prove beyond that.

Don’t get me wrong here: I look forward to the playoffs as much as anyone, but it is a bit disconcerting if their arrival somehow translates to a downgrade or dismissal of good sportsmanship.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Pnuemonia, Fuel Pumps and Football

Distracted Mechanics by mdt1960
Distracted Mechanics, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
A year ago this weekend, the weekend of the Montana quarterfinals, I had just started to consider which quarterfinal game I would attend for the upcoming weekend when I fell ill to pneumonia that progressed into septic shock—ultimately preventing me from seeing the completion of the 2011 season. The weekend before I had attended the first-round playoff game in Fairview where the Warriors had their way with Centerville. My travel plans for the following weekend were likely either Twin Bridges and their showdown with Chester-Joplin-Inverness or a long drive down I-94 to Savage and their matchup with Hot Springs.

This past Friday, I set out for a motel in Glendive that would serve as a base camp. Saturday morning I would wake up in Glendive and drive to Grenora, North Dakota to take in a Montana Class C six-man quarterfinal game between the upstart co-op MonDak (Westby, Montana and Grenora, North Dakota) and Big Sandy to finish what I started last season.

And like last year, the universe had other plans for me, only this time I wouldn’t fall ill, my truck would—in particular, the fuel pump.
First Fumble by mdt1960
First Fumble, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.

The gasoline prices in Bridger, Montana are often cheaper than in my hometown of Powell. As a result, I fuel up in Bridger as I make my way to some far-off football game. This past Friday was no exception only when I started my engine after topping off the tank, it refused to fire. I’d experienced this before and it wasn’t long before I started suspecting the fuel pump.

From behind the Maverick store where I pushed my dead-in-the-water pickup, Fremont Ford in Powell informed me over the phone of an operation in Bridger that purchases parts from them on a regular basis so, they gave me the number to Carbon Equipment Repair, LLC. And at 4:15 on a Friday afternoon, Steve (one of the three mechanics) informed me that despite having six other calls on this late Friday afternoon (“Breakdown Friday” as he called it), he was going to try to squeeze my truck in. By 5:00 when most businesses are hurrying to shut down for the weekend, my truck was going up on CER’s lift.

On a side note and small plug for CER, their shop is an amazing snapshot of today’s American mechanization as they repair almost anything—from the small jobs like my pickup to semi trucks and farm tractors.

As it turned out, my truck needed more than just a new fuel pump as there were other complications with the wiring to the fuel pump and those parts weren’t readily available.
Beater by mdt1960
Beater, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.

Despite the grim news that I wouldn’t be making it to Grenora, I had two reasons to be hopeful: first, Donovan, Dustin and Steve had an old beater Dodge Stratus that they would lend me until my truck was repaired. Secondly, Bridger was hosting one of the other six-man playoff games the next day. And despite attending two Bridger games already this year, I felt pretty lucky to have this option on the table.

As it turned out, I walked away from the weekend feeling that not only is small town high school football still a viable and rewarding sport for kids from such communities like Bridger but, small town America is still a great place to visit or live (if your lucky enough)—starting with the hard-working and tireless mechanics at Carbon Equipment Repair, LLC.

Footnote: This week’s semifinal lineup for Class C (both 8-man and 6-man) is quite unusual in that it resembles a Wyoming playoff scenario where in every matchup the teams have already faced each other during the regular season. Fairview thumped Ennis at the Brawl in the Beartooths during the first week while Superior was downed by Drummond in a two-point shoot-out back on September 21, Hot Springs defeated Geraldine-Highwood on August 31 to the tune of 45-13, and Valier topped Big Sandy by two points as well on September 28.

Monday, October 01, 2012

A Brush With Small Town Greatness

Anthem Antics by mdt1960
Anthem Antics, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Related to the full moon, her text message said, “Moonlight is magical and brings you either luck or insanity.”

As a photographer, it’s a bit uncanny how the faces of these players stay with you through the years. You might not notice them when you’re walking down a street in any given town, but when you’re back in their small home towns—where they played football—it’s not unreasonable to think that you might bump into them… say, eight years later.

I was carrying on with my invisible act as I often do when I’m in public places and I don’t really know anyone. I hesitated about it, but before leaving Hysham, Montana, after the game, I decided to have a cold beer at one of the local watering holes. I sat at an empty high table—the kind fitted with the high chairs/stools—minding my own business and watching the interaction of the locals unfold. Several young men gravitated to my table but were facing toward the bar across from me. The next thing I knew, more gathered around which included sitting on my side of the table next to me. Suddenly, it appeared as if I was one of the gang.

The young man that sat next to me became recognizable almost right away thanks to friends calling out to him as “Scotty” and “Schultzy.”

I took a hard look and knew it was Scott Schultz, the great Hysham fullback and linebacker that lead the Pirates to a playoff appearance in 2004. They were a gutsy eight-man team with only 12 players and still managed to fight their way into the playoffs that year. After easily defeating Scobey in the first round, Schultz and his teammates gave perennial favorite Centerville the biggest scare in the quarterfinals, dominating the entire first half before succumbing to exhaustion and injuries (Schultz included) in the second half. It was a controversial game as well with questionable calls by the officials while fans from both sides became irate with one another. Had the Hysham team stayed healthy, they surely would have seen another playoff game the following week.

Earlier in the evening on my way to the six-man game between Hysham and Westby-Grenora, one of the ticket-takers shared with me how many of the kids that graduated from Hysham over the years headed for the good-paying jobs in the Bakken oil field rather than college—Schultz was one of them, she had said.

Looking Down On Big "H" by mdt1960
Looking Down On Big "H", a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Nearly finished with my beer, my invisible guard must have broke down as Schultz turned to me and asked where I was from. Like most of the crowd, I detected in his face that he probably already had a couple of drinks and so, I contemplated if it really mattered where I was from. I told him Powell, Wyoming and that I was just heading home. He followed up thoughtfully with, “That’s not too far to go.”

Knowing the conversation wouldn’t last much longer, I said, “You were number 32, weren’t you?” He seemed puzzled, but after clarifying that I spoke of his football number, he confirmed it was his jersey number. I then told him I’d seen him play in Ekalaka, Terry and Centerville. One of the guys across the table overheard me and said something akin to, “He must be stalking you Scotty.”

I handed Schultz one of my cards for good measure.

Referring to the Centerville game, Scott said, “We don’t talk about that game around here.”

Feeling like one of Clint Eastwood’s senior citizen characters I simply said, “You guys were one hell of a team,” as I rose from my chair. I patted him on the shoulder as I walked past and said, “Take care of yourself.” I placed the empty beer bottle on the bar and walked out.

I smiled all the way out the door and later laughed as I was driving out of town heading toward the interstate but, I’m unsure why. Perhaps it was just dumb luck in meeting up with one of these players from so long ago. Or maybe it was knowing that he might have sat there for a minute after I left—considering his own sanity—thinking in a somewhat inebriated state, “What the hell was that all about?”

Whatever it was, whatever had just happened it made me smile with an overwhelming sense of happiness. I knew it was magical, and there was the full moon above to remind me.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Rising Up To Pinedale

Fist Bump by mdt1960
Fist Bump, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
After umpteen years of attending small town high school football games, one would think that I’ve been everywhere there is in the two states of Wyoming and Montana but, it’s just not true.

When it comes to Montana Class C football, I’ve been absent for games in Victor, St. Regis, Hot Springs, Culbertson-Bainville, Froid-Medicine Lake, Darby, Box Elder, Lambert-Richey, Cascade and Valier… and those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

In Wyoming, it’s the same story but the small schools are defined as those playing 2A or lower. Starting with the smallest schools playing six-man, Midwest and Guernsey-Sunrise are still not represented in my portfolio. In 1A, I have yet to attend a game at Wyoming Indian, Saratoga, Upton, Southeast, Pine Bluffs, Normative Services, Lusk or Lingle-Ft. Laramie.

Despite this blatant negligence on my part, I can say that most of the schools listed above, I have actually been to their gridirons—just not during game days.

So, I’m delighted to announce here that this past weekend I added another notch to my football belt in a trip to Pinedale for a contest between the 2A Wranglers and the 1A Rebels of Riverside (Basin).

The one thing I truly cherish about the 2A class in Wyoming is that it represents the largest tally of schools in all of Wyoming’s classes. So, if anyone can say they are a “state champ” in Wyoming, it is the team that takes the 2A title—unless they are beaten by a 1A school during the regular season (this might be a good opportunity to read up on Cokeville).

Like West Yellowstone, Montana, the best way to get to Pinedale from my home in Powell is through the Park—Yellowstone National Park that is. And since Pinedale is south of the Park, I also passed through Grand Teton National Park. Excuse me if I sound as if I’m boasting here but, I’m confident few people are lucky enough to drive through places as scenic as Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks on their way to a high school football game.

When it comes to Pinedale, it is unique in its elevation. Walking around town or on the artificial turf of Sonny Korfanta Field, one might experience a shortness of breath given the town is listed at nearly 7,200 feet. So, I wondered: Do the Wranglers have an advantage, especially when other teams are visiting, hailing from locations under 5,000 feet—like Riverside (Basin) where the elevation is a mere 3,900 feet? According to head coach Allen Johnson, he’s never known elevation to be an issue for their visiting opponents. Whether elevation was a factor or not, the Wranglers were impressive in their 31-0 shutout over the Rebels from Riverside. Further, for this 52-year-old who normally resides at 4,300 feet, I felt there was a formidable difference when I ran my routine eight laps at the track the next day in Pinedale.

Lastly, in all of my visits to various small town high school football venues, Pinedale’s Sonny Korfanta Field was my first with artificial turf. A Pinedale statistician on the sidelines told me he expects more schools around the state to install artificial turf in the near future. If that’s the case, one has to wonder, which school will be the first in Wyoming to have a non-green turf?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

More Brawls In The Beartooths... please

Tyler South by mdt1960
Tyler South, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Four years ago I ventured down to Texas to see some real six-man football. It was the first week of the season and a little town called Jayton was hosting an entire day of six-man football games—four in all, that started at 10:00 in the morning and finished with a night-cap game featuring the hometown team. It was called the Jayton Gridiron Classic.

I remember thinking back then, “Montana should do something like this for Class C—eight-man and/or six-man.”

A year later, Ennis (fresh into their first eight-man season in years) hosted a double header featuring Absarokee and Philipsburg in the opener and the hometown Mustangs taking on White Sulphur Springs for the nightcap. Thoughts of Jayton the year before came back to me, but it just wasn’t quite the same.

This past weekend, Absarokee did the same thing that Ennis did back in 2009 except they took it one step further. Their eight-man double header was given a name: The Brawl In the Beartooths. And they did one smart marketing trick: they included a game between two teams that are expected to do well this year—Fairview and Ennis.

If you ask me, the folks in Absarokee are on to something—and hopefully something even bigger next year. Absarokee is one of those great football locations with a nice flavoring of tradition too. And, what better place to begin a new season of football.

Perhaps next year’s “Brawl” will be like Jayton’s four game juggernaut. And why not include a game or two of six-man action as part of the lineup? “Brawl In The Beartooths” T-shirts? Oh yeah!

BTW: The Jayton Gridiron Classic runs the course of three days now and has expanded to seven games. This year's dates are August 30 – September 1.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

All-Stars Shine One Last Time

Sticker Exchange by mdt1960
Sticker Exchange, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Unlike most football games of Class C nature, I decided not to take my camera equipment to the Bob Cleverley Class C Eight-Man All Star game this past weekend in Butte, Montana… although the gear was in the car had I changed my mind. “To shoot or not to shoot,” was something I’d been mulling around all week prior to the game and the final decision didn’t come until I surveyed Alumni Stadium on the campus of Montana Tech in Butte.

As expected, I found the setting to be an exalted version of what is typically a modest and humble game played in places like Centerville or Scobey—which is a key attraction for folks like me. Yet, the All-Star “shoot-out” in Butte, with its JumboTron and a cream-of-the-crop roster is OK—in the same way that the prom doesn’t represent a typical day of school. And besides, isn’t it always nice to give the students a taste of what it feels like to be important and dress up accordingly (assuming that is your understanding of high school proms)?

So, I just sat back and watched the game much like everyone else. I did use my camera phone a couple times (for the above image too), but no more than anyone else who had such devices in the stands. Here are a few things that came to me as I soaked up the night.

I’m not sure which side (the Red or Blue) was the more spirited, but I’m pretty sure the folks from White Sulphur Springs cheered the loudest for their all-stars Cy Williams, Keith Forkin and Tyler West (along with coaches Barry Hedrich and Pat Morris) whenever they were introduced or made a big play.

One might think that having the game in June is a bit “non-representational” of autumn weather, but give Butte credit for making sure the evening felt like typical fall weather (even if the sun didn’t set until the third quarter). I should have brought a blanket to wrap myself in while watching the game.

As far as the game’s outcome (which is probably the least important revolving around this event), the Blue (West/North All Stars) must have noticed a chink in the Red (East/South All Stars) armor as they took a seven-point advantage at halftime and ended the game with a 49-22 victory. Some may have been surprised given the Red included state champions Twin Bridges and and runner-up Fairview. Yet, this was a game of seniors only. And for all we know, perhaps the Red simply had more fun during their week of camp prior to the game.

As the game unfolded, I couldn’t help but think several times that this particular game would be the last game of organized football for many of these talented and athletic young men. So, it was gratifying to see five-foot-six-inch, 120-pound, Superior running back Matt Campbell slip into the end zone one last time despite the stiff opposition coming at him from all angles during the game.

Next year… I suspect there’s many of us out there who would like to attend both all-star games when it comes to Class C. So, why not hold the six-man contest on the first Friday of June and then have the eight-man game the following night. What a fun weekend of travel and football.