Monday, December 15, 2014

Wibaux: Beyond the Gridiron

Trophy2Go
Colton Tousignant
During any given week of any given year of the Montana eight-man football season, there’s a good chance the Longhorns of Wibaux are sitting near the top of the polls—if not in the poll position. However, ending the season as owners of that top spot has been rather elusive for the ‘Horns in the past 13 years. So, after seeing them drop title games at Centerville (2006), Chinook (2010) and Ennis (2013), I was delighted to see them crowned champions this year. Honestly, I was starting to think their title-game bad luck had something to do with me. But, they haven’t always come up short when I was around.

In 2006 I made the long trip to Wibaux (342 miles) for the Class C semi-final game between the Longhorns and the visiting Trojans from Drummond. Two years earlier Drummond had stunned visiting Wibaux in a quarterfinal matchup and hadn’t lost a game since the 2002 season. The Longhorns repaid the Trojans that weekend, but beyond the excitement of that particular contest, I also remember the town of Wibaux itself.

***

To say that Wibaux is a rich football town is an understatement. Located on the extreme eastern plains of Montana, there’s no nearby college or professional football venues to distract. Throw in a program with a storied winning tradition and you have the likeness of an Odessa, Texas, or Massillon, Ohio condensed down to a community of 600 or so (and just over 1,000 in the entire county).

Because Veterans Memorial Field at Wibaux is without floodlights, home games are on Saturdays—which means many of the locals are talking football come Friday night. So, just imagine a rich football town like Wibaux on the night before their team hosted the three-peat defending champions. It was pretty crazy as I recall, especially at the Rainbow Club where various TVs were hooked up to VCRs playing back old Wibaux title games that they won in the not-so-distant past. It seemed like everyone came in that night, even one of the coaches. There was a feeling in the air like no other eve of a big game. In short, The Rainbow Club could have hung with any joint on High Street in Columbus, Ohio the night before Michigan comes to town.

This past season, I made the long trip again to witness another rematch—the 2010 title-game between the Longhorns and Sugarbeeters from Chinook—and, once again, for all the marbles.

After my 2006 visit, I expected the town of Wibaux to be every bit as electric given this was another opportunity to exercise revenge.
Game Preparation
The coach's dad, Dave Bertelsen
I headed out around 6:00 that Friday evening with a visit to the football field for a count of vehicles already parked around its perimeter for Saturday’s game (small town high school football’s equivalent of loge seats). Fifty-seven unoccupied vehicles surrounded most of the field, but there were still openings on the Chinook side. Later I learned that most of the cars and trucks had been there since Monday. This validated what I already knew about Wibaux: they were crazy about their football.

By 6:30, I drove down to the Beaver Creek Brewery expecting to find a line of patrons outside the door, but it looked and felt like “business-as-usual.” The brewery and attached restaurant were operating at a healthy hum, but it wasn’t the hum of a night before a title game as much as it was simply the hum of a typical Friday night when more people dine out. Nevertheless, I rationalized that it was simply too early in the evening, so I took advantage of the civil setting and treated myself to the barbecue brisket on homemade bread from the menu. It was out of this world along with the special Irish cream ale on tap.

I took my time at Beaver Creek and by 8:00 I walked into the Rainbow Club to find it hauntingly subdued. Oh sure, there were folks in there, but like the brewery, it felt like just another Friday night rather than a title-game Friday night. I ordered a Coors (regular) and a pack of wasabi almonds as I waited for the crowd to follow, but an hour and a half later, I was already back in my motel room at the Beaver Creek Inn.

For all I know, perhaps things didn’t really get going until 10:00 that evening, and I can chalk my experience up to the fact that I’m just too old now to be out late. Yet, laying in bed, I wondered… Those TV sets showing old state title games were gone, replaced by cable TV coverage of various sporting events happening in real time. I considered the Internet and cable TV’s prolific reach into our smallest and most remote communities. I was reminded of franchise stores and restaurants and how they homogenize any given community to the point that they all start looking the same. And, those were my last thoughts before I drifted off to sleep.

It’s very possible that Wibaux is a little more subdued these days on Friday nights before a game than say, 2006, but I don’t doubt the victory celebration that followed the title game was anything less than memorable in every conceivable way. With threatening weather forecasted, I decided to make my way home after the game rather than linger and watch the town carry on in its celebration. Though I made it home without incident, it was a regrettable decision.

*** 

For the most part, I’m always pretty neutral given any game I attend—some have argued that, but really, I’ve never had a dog in any of these fights. Yet, in this 2014 eight-man championship game, I found myself pulling for the ’Horns. I know there are those Chinook faithful who believe this to be true because they gave me so much grief back in 2010 on this same blog, but I would have been backing the Longhorns no matter who opposed them in this title contest.

Here’s where I’m coming from: Some would argue that Wibaux has won plenty of state titles over the years and certainly doesn’t need more hardware for their overstuffed trophy case. But when a team consistently returns to the chipper almost like a perennial flower, and comes up short more often than they succeed, it’s easy to get behind them. And, unlike most folk, I’ve seen Wibaux lose more than they’ve won since I started this project in 1997.

A few years ago a friend of mine lectured me on why Jack Nicklaus—and not Tiger Woods—is the greatest golfer of all time. His rationale: when Nicklaus didn’t win, he was right there with the leaders in most tournaments he played. Contrary to that, Tiger Woods wins, but when he doesn’t win, he’s nowhere in sight of the leader board. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how Wibaux is the Jack Nicklaus of Montana football.

Coach's Approval
Head coach Jeff Bertelsen and sophomore Angus Lund
The truth be known, in my small town travels of Montana and Wyoming, I’ve come to like a lot of teams and almost all the ones I favor have a coach that has served for years. And the best thing about those coaches is they couldn't care less if someone like me favors them or not.

Lastly, I typically cheer for underdogs and Wibaux is constantly an underdog when it comes to enrollment numbers. There are several schools that play six-man with more students than Wibaux, but the Longhorns continue to play eight-man. According to the Montana High School Association, in 2013–14, the two schools that faced Wibaux in the semi-final and championship games this year—Ennis and Chinook—had 108 and 142 students (9–12) respectively while 57 students were enrolled at Wibaux. The only other school to have lesser numbers playing eight-man is Hays-Lodgepole with 51 students. Of those 57 Wibaux students, 28 were listed in the title game program roster, and as far as I could tell, the same number (or close to it) were in uniform too.

So call me a ’Horns fan—I’m OK with it because I like winners and I like underdogs.

Note: As of the time of this writing, I did not find such statistics for the 2014-15 school year, but the numbers are likely similar.

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