NEW ULM – To the unaware eye, there was an odd scene after Thursday night’s football game between the Marshall Tigers and New Ulm Eagles. One of the Marshall coaches was smiling and laughing with several players wearing purple … New Ulm purple. It looked like old friends who were catching up.
And that’s exactly what it was.
Tony Ortmann is a Marshall assistant coach. He is the defensive coordinator, and his band of Tigers defenders played a stellar game Thursday, as did the offense. Marshall, the third-ranked team in Class 4A, raised its record to 3-0 with a 58-14 victory over the Eagles. Through three games, the Tigers have outscored their opponents 166-34.
Here’s the deal, though: For the previous five years Ortmann was the head coach in New Ulm. So Thursday’s game was a homecoming of sorts, a reunion with the boys in purple.
The outcome of the game wasn’t in serious doubt after little more than one quarter had been played. Marshall scored on its first two possessions and held a 19-0 lead two and a half minutes into the second quarter. It was 39-0 at halftime. Junior running back Jefferson Lee – who led the state in touchdowns last season -- scored five TDs on Thursday.
After the game was over, the teams shook hands and then kneeled in front of their respective coaches for a few words, as is tradition, in the two end zones. A couple minutes later, New Ulm Eagles began streaming to the other end of the field for handshakes, hands on shoulder pads and smiles with their former coach.
“There are quite a few coaches who are still on the (New Ulm) staff,” Ortmann said. “They’re all great guys. Leaving my friends and those kids, I’ve never had to make a decision so hard in my life.”
Coaching and teaching in Marshall meant Ortmann, his wife Brooke and their two young daughters could return home. He was a three-sport athlete before graduating from Marshall in 2002, and he played football at Southwest Minnesota State in Marshall.
Ortmann was in New Ulm for eight years. He was a volunteer assistant football coach in his first year, became defensive coordinator and then head coach.
Earlier in the week Ortmann told me, “I really look forward to the game, and it’s not a game where you’re looking to beat someone hard. I’m excited to see the kids and the coaches I coached with. I’m excited to see the kids play. After having been part of their lives for the past few years, I want to see how they progress and continue that bond with them.”
The game conditions were not optimal. Rain began falling Thursday afternoon and didn’t stop until the second quarter. The grass at Johnson Field was wet and slick, and the bench areas were nothing but mud. Johnson Field takes a beating every year, because it’s the home field for New Ulm, New Ulm Cathedral and Minnesota Valley Lutheran. The Marshall-New Ulm game was played Thursday because Cathedral and Minnesota Valley Lutheran played there Friday night.
The Eagles are soon to exit Johnson Field, however. New Ulm High School moved into a spacious new building this fall, complete with first-rate athletic facilities. Among those is a football stadium with artificial turf, and it’s hoped the stadium will be ready to host its first game for the Eagles homecoming contest against Belle Plaine on Sept. 30.
Marshall’s team is built largely on speed, along with talented linemen led by 6-foot-6, 305-pound senior Blaise Andries, who has committed to the University of Minnesota. If there was any speculation that a wet track would slow the Tigers on Thursday, it disintegrated quickly. Marshall also got some breaks.
The Tigers drove 80 yards on their first possession. Quarterback Trey Lance fumbled into the end zone and teammate Ryan VanMoer fell on the ball for a touchdown. Lance later hit Reece Winkelman for a 35-yard score, and Lee returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown and ran 68 yards for another.
Ortmann played dozens of high school and college games at Southwest State, but Johnson Field remains a home field. His strong connections made leaving New Ulm a little difficult.
“There was one school and one town we would be willing to leave New Ulm for, and that was to get back home near our families,” he said. “We both have siblings around and it’s a great time to be back home and be with family. Our kids were a big part of our decision. They’re not in school yet. They have cousins in Marshall and our daughters absolutely love their cousins.”
Amid the postgame smiles, Ortmann had the best of everything: A nice win by the hometown team that he helps coach, and the chance to reunite with his former colleagues and players in New Ulm.
“It’s been fun seeing the kids,” he said. “It was fun to watch them make some good plays and see our kids execute at the same time.”
That’s a win-win.--To see a photo gallery from the game, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 43
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 1,832