Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Ennis Passes The Wibaux Acid Test

Game Over by mdt1960
Game Over, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
It’s a “season” that begins with the fighting of heat and mosquitos, but near its completion, the fight is with a growing cold while each new week brings a stronger opponent.

One could make an argument that either team was deserving of this year’s title. Ennis hadn’t won it all since 1982 (coincidentally against Wibaux). Yet, Wibaux has been knocking on the title door five different times since winning it last in 2001.

In my camp and beyond, there was worry of a title game blowout. Ennis had been playing invincible football all season long. The Billings Gazette’s Slim Kimmel said of the title game, “It’s the matchup we wanted, but Ennis is playing at a completely different level than the rest of Class C 8-Man. Ennis 44, Wibaux 20.” And so for once, the Longhorns were the undisputed underdog coming into the season finale.

As it turned out, Kimmel was right about the winner, but there was no doubt that the Longhorns from Wibaux were playing at the same level as the Mustangs. Every time it appeared the Mustangs were going to put the game out of reach, Wibaux would come back to pull within a touchdown or less.

It was gut check time for Ennis, and from behind their green facemasks, it showed—especially in the second half.

Along with their army of football players, Wibaux brought the wood and heart—and Ennis would need some of their own including their talent and high-octane athleticism to claim the title.

Wibaux had done their homework when it came to keeping talented players like Connor Sullivan, Roy Moen and Reid Farnes out of the end zone, but the Wibaux defense had no answers for Ennis junior quarterback Walker McKitrick—neither his running or passing game (in particular his hookups with senior Chad Johnerson). Johnerson and McKitrick were both slippery and elusive to the Wibaux defense and that was significant. Yet, the Longhorns made the scoring look effortless as well in tallying 56 points on their side of the scoreboard.

Uninvited Guest by mdt1960
Uninvited Guest, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Credit the Ennis coaching staff for not resting on their laurels by resorting to a conservative game once they established the lead. They made sure the high-octane Ennis offense maintained their killer instinct, and in turn, that maintained the team’s confidence.

Looking back on the game, I doubt anyone was too surprised in how the Longhorns measured up to the Mustangs. Pound for pound, season after season, Wibaux continually rises to the top; and if not outright on top, certainly near the top. Look at it this way: how long has it been since Wibaux wasn’t in the playoffs?

…sometime in the Dark Ages I’m guessing.

I’ve contemplated this before, but Wibaux is simply the (as in “thee”) standard when it comes to eight-man football in Montana. (I can hear my select Chinook critics now.) Despite any bragging that goes with being a member of championship team, surely there’s a little extra bragging if one of those victories in route to the Montana state title includes vanquishing a Wibaux team—especially if it occurs in the championship match.

Not long ago, some guy in some bar—say Havre, Montana—likely just told someone that he was on the 2002 Scobey state championship team. You can almost hear him say in the same breath, “…and we beat Wibaux in the title game!”

But the day will surely come—maybe even next year—Wibaux will win another title. After falling short in the past, might this future Longhorn championship team be any more special then these past runner up teams? Probably not. Win or lose, they have all served as bearers of a standard that is quintessential Montana eight-man football.

So, congratulations are in order to the Ennis Mustangs. They were victorious over a bona fide and formidable Wibaux team. They have passed the acid test. They have earned the badge. They have passed “GO” and can now collect their $200. Without question, the Ennis Mustangs earned the title of “State Champs.”

Postscript: Here's a nice story on SB Nation about Wibaux's season and eight-man football in Eastern Montana by Jamie Rogers.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Geraldine, Montana: a football Elysium

Geraldine Setting by mdt1960
Geraldine Setting, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
In the muted light of the Geraldine High School gymnasium, Rivals coaches Rod Tweet and Brandon Gondeiro sat quietly in the bleachers before their Montana Class C Six-Man semi-final game with Savage. It felt like the calm before the storm. Players of the undefeated and number-one ranked Geraldine-Highwood Rivals were casually throwing footballs back and forth to stay loose—dressed in their t-shirts and football pants, sans shoulder pads and helmets.

“They match up with us pretty evenly,” came the subdued response from Tweet when I asked him about undefeated Savage. Their was no over-the-top optimism or impending doom in his voice. Tweet’s comment came across simply as matter-of-fact.

It’s always exciting when two highly touted teams from two different conferences battle in the playoffs, but such meetings don’t always result in an exciting game—as in the Class C Eight-Man quarterfinal game I attended the week earlier between Ennis and Simms.

A couple of hours after that brief visit in the gym, when Savage roared back from a 22-8 halftime deficit to tie the the game at thirty and send the game into overtime, perhaps the least surprised person attending the game was Rod Tweet.

The Savage rally transported me back to 2003 when Geraldine (before their co-op with Highwood) and Custer-Melstone met on the same field for the six-man final. Instead it was the Tigers of Geraldine who ended up rallying from a significant halftime deficit, and winning the title with a final score of 80-78. Coincidentally, in both games the team that was wearing orange and black was the team that overcame their slow, first-half beginnings. However in this semi-final game with Savage, Geraldine-Highwood would survive the rally and answer it with their own rally in the two overtime periods.

It’s always somewhat bittersweet when two football programs of such high caliber play each other in such a fierce and closely battled contest. As a relatively neutral spectator (but fan of the game), I hate to see anyone lose in such conditions.

In those last moments of overtime, after the Rivals secured their second touchdown and PAT, and Savage’s quarterback Paxton Miller was forced out of bounds ending the game, the snow came on cue, like a curtain signaling the end of a theatrical play. As the mayhem of the game’s final seconds was replaced by a post-game hush, both teams circled in the middle of the field and offered up their thanks with the snow coming harder and faster.

I know not every game played on the Geraldine field is an exciting or magical one, but in my little universe I have to wonder if there’s something exceptional about that gridiron ...out there on those high wheat fields of Montana with its dramatic skies and crisp air.

Recently I read a story about the best high school football towns in America. For the most part, they were places I would expect given my slight obsession on this topic. Ranging from Ohio to Texas to the South, the top ten football programs were listed by rank. Yet, after reading the article, I couldn’t help but say to myself, “But they’ve never seen a game in Geraldine.”

…or Savage.

…or Centerville.

…or Denton.

…or Wibaux.

…or Alberton.

…or Drummond, etc.

Postscript: A special thanks goes out to Ty from Savage… you know who you are. He let me borrow a pair of gloves for the game when I realized I was without mine prior to the start of the game.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Playoff Musings

Kickoff At Ennis by mdt1960
Kickoff At Ennis, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
This is the time of year when the quaint charm of everything that is small town high school football seems to fade away and is replaced by the pure competitive spirit that has become the playoff season. Given all the wholesome attributes that have drawn me to this particular genre of football (its good sportsmanship, simplicity, and overall Americana-feel for starters), sometimes I think staying home is a viable option once the last week of the regular season is completed. Nevertheless, after attending eight weeks of Class C football in Montana and 1A Six-Man in Wyoming, it’s difficult not to get caught up in everything that points toward the state championships.

And so, there I was driving off to Ennis for their quarterfinal game with Simms. Although it was a playoff game, I had a particular and unique interest in choosing the Ennis venue… I’d never photographed a Simms team in action.

I’ll confess here, deep down inside I wanted Simms to win, but it wasn’t because I knew someone on the team, or I had some kind of strange disliking for Ennis. No, I was only hoping that they would advance so they would host the title game. Why? Because I’ve never photographed a game in Simms and after looking at the town on Google maps, I found myself curious about a town that fit perfectly in a square with its school smack dab in the center (see photo).

Well, perhaps a trip to Simms is in the cards for me next year.

I don’t put much stock into ratings when it comes to high school football, but the Ennis team did catch me off guard. Weren’t they the same team that took a beating by Fairview… twice, last year? My, how things change in the course of a year. Now I know why they were ranked number one from the first week of the season. It wasn’t just some willy-nilly, we-have-to-designate-some-undefeated-team-as-number-one thing.

As much as the Ennis 76-0 win over Simms took me by surprise, I was also astonished by the thrashing Superior suffered at the hands of Wibaux. Forgive me fans of Charlo and Belt, but I’m sensing a huge, well-contested Ennis-Wibaux title game on the near horizon, and surely I’m not the only one who has thought about it. This upcoming week of semi-finals feels way too much like a warm-up game for the Mustangs and Longhorns. That said, nothing keeps me more humble than getting wrong what I was certain I had right.