GRAND MEADOW – When this little town was established during the Civil War era, it took its name from the picturesque prairie landscape of southeast Minnesota. Nowadays, the grandest meadow in Grand Meadow is a field of thick green grass on the eastern edge of town, 120 yards long and 40 yards wide, the home of the best little football team in Minnesota.
The Grand Meadow Superlarks have won the last three nine-man football state championships. They own the longest current winning streak in the state regardless of class, with Friday’s 80-34 victory over West Lutheran extending their run to 41 games. Their last defeat came in October 2013.
Friday’s victory capped Homecoming week, which was filled with the usual array of fun festivities that included themed dress-up days in the K-12 school, float building, an afternoon parade and introduction of Homecoming royalty at halftime of the football game. An unofficial tradition took place very late Thursday evening/early Friday morning when some merry pranksters TP’d the home of head coach Gary Sloan.
His dog, hearing the shenanigans, woke the coach. Sloan flipped on an exterior light “and I saw about a dozen of them out there,” he said with a smile Friday afternoon. “That didn’t even faze them.”
It’s hard not to have fun during autumn in Grand Meadow. Everyone takes great pride in the success of the Superlarks, filling a small set of bleachers and lining up along the fence that circles the field. The town itself is crowded all the time these days, with a growing school enrollment fueled by parents who work in nearby Rochester and Austin and want to raise their kids in a quiet town with a quality school.
The school building is unique: Five windowless monolithic domes that encompass classrooms, cafeteria, auditorium, gymnasium, computer lab and offices. The structure opened in 2002 and is being expanded this fall with the addition of larger gym, locker rooms, workout facilities and four classrooms. Geothermal energy powers the school via 26 miles of pipe under the practice fields a few steps away.
Grand Meadow’s current high school enrollment is 95 students. When the Superlarks won their first-ever state football title in 2013 the senior class consisted of 17 students; a year later that number was 18 and last year it was 29. The district's average current class size is in the upper 30s.
Many nine-man football schools struggle with numbers and some form cooperative teams with other schools in order to keep football alive. The opposite is taking place in Grand Meadow, where growth may push the Superlarks into 11-man football at some point.
“We won’t get to that 11-man number in the next four to five years but we’re getting close,” said Sloan (pictured during a pregame meeting).
Game nights in Grand Meadow include a few special amenities. Seats in a couch located behind an end zone are raffled off; an auction was held at halftime Friday with the game ball selling for $1,200. The press box is a roomy three-story building that seats coaches, video cameras, scoreboard operator and announcer on the top level, while the second story houses four “luxury suites” that also bring in funds.
The long winning streak means every team wants to play its absolute best against the Superlarks, and West Lutheran – the school is in Plymouth, two hours from Grand Meadow – did just that. The Warriors (enrollment 145) and quarterback Ben Beise had 311 yards and four touchdowns through the air. Grand Meadow is a running team, with senior Christopher Bain carrying nine times for 217 yards and three scores and junior Zach Myhre running eight times for 130 yards and one TD.
“I feel like there’s pressure in every game,” Myhre said. “And I know we’re going to get every team’s best effort, no matter who they are, the No. 2-ranked team or the worst team. We’re going to get their best effort.”
Senior Connor King said, “Pressure is obviously there. There’s not much we can do about it other than just play our best and go into every game the same.”
There is a friendly in-house rivalry between graduating classes. Two years ago the senior football players had a career record of 47-6 and last year’s class went 53-3. This year’s seniors have lost only once in 43 games since their freshman season.
“They’re all trying to beat the class in front of them. It’s a friendly competition. These guys are buddies but there’s a lot of bragging rights,” said Sloan, a native of Ellendale who also is a special education teacher, activities director, transportation director and Title IX coordinator for the school district. This is his 24th year as the head football coach.
Grand Meadow’s first trip to the state football playoffs was in 1986, but the Superlarks have a long, rich history. Bill Severin Sr. was the coach in the 1950s and 1960s; in 1965 the team set a then-state record with 47 straight wins. Severin was named Minnesota’s first coach of the year in 1965 and was inducted into the Minnesota High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1989.
The current Superlarks are 5-0 going into Friday’s game at LeRoy-Ostrander (2-3). Grand Meadow fans can be forgiven for looking ahead to the final regular-season game against Spring Grove, which is also unbeaten in 2015 and is routinely the Superlarks’ biggest rival in the Section 1 playoffs.
Grand Meadow’s streak was in serious jeopardy in last year’s regular-season finale, a 21-20 nail-biter at Spring Grove. In six postseason games that followed, the Superlarks won by an average margin of 24 points; the closest game was a 14-point victory over Underwood in the Prep Bowl.
The Superlarks’ average score this fall is 65-17. They are rushing for 391 yards per game, with Bain averaging 131 yards and Myrhe 93 for a team with starters that go to the bench as soon as the second quarter.
All this success hinges on many factors, of course, but none are more important than coaching. Sloan has only four assistant coaches, and all of them – Aaron Myhre, Deke Stejskal, Anthony Stejskal and Josh Bain – played for him.
“Our coaching staff does a really good job and the players buy in and work hard in the offseason,” King said. “It’s like a band of brothers here. We all get along with each other and we work well together.”
Zach Myhre added, “Obviously there are a lot of kids who get in the weight room in the offseason and work their butts off, but I think it comes down to our coaching staff implementing our game plan and then us successfully playing with it.”--To see a photo gallery from Grand Meadow, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 72
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 2,667
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn