UNDERWOOD – If you have never lived in a small town, you may not fully grasp the meaning of these words:
“There have been decades and decades of people who have played football here before us, and they all want the success just as bad as we do. And that really motivates us to do our best and push each other. There are people we don’t know at all, and they’ll come up to us and say, ‘Hope you have a good year, you guys can do it.’ There’s definitely a good crowd behind us and people who are always motivating us.”
Those words were spoken Tuesday morning by Cole Kugler, a senior football player in Underwood. The Rockets had just finished the day’s workout on a grassy practice field behind the school, which is the home of every student in the area from kindergarten through 12th grade.
The 9-12 enrollment is 143 students and Underwood’s population is 339. Small numbers mean nine-man football, and the Rockets are one of Minnesota’s top nine-man programs. They have a record of 46-14 over the past five years, with three trips to the state playoffs and one Prep Bowl appearance.
Underwood lost to Grand Meadow in the Prep Bowl two years ago and fell to the same team in last year’s state quarterfinals as Grand Meadow won another championship. This year’s Underwood roster includes 13 seniors among 36 football players in grades 9-12, and to say they are motivated is an understatement.
“Two years ago, our sophomore year, we went to the state championship game,” senior Justin Masloski said. “Last year that was our goal, and this year we’ve got to do it. It’s our last chance.”
Classmate Matt Biegler added, “We know what it feels like to lose in the Prep Bowl, and we don’t want that.”
If the Rockets achieve their goal of winning a title, it would be Underwood’s first state championship in any team sport.
“They’re hungry to not only get back there, but they want to win this whole thing,” said 17-year head coach Chuck Ross.
If Tuesday’s workout was an indication, the Rockets will be ready when they open the season with a home game against Renville County West on Aug. 22. As is usually the case when a group of veteran coaches works with experienced athletes, the practice was crisp with nothing wasted in regards to motion or time.
The coaches, just like the players, know expectations are high. And that’s just fine.
“It really started long before I got here,” said Ross (pictured), a native of Ortonville. “You talk to some of the older people around here and they still talk about their high school football days. It’s kind of the norm for people to grow up around here and want to play. And not only play, but they want to be successful. The town wants the program to be successful, and I think that all kind of feeds into it. We’ve been happy to have those kinds of kids and parents.”
As with many small schools, game nights in Underwood are special events. People walk the sidelines following the back and forth of the football, concessions are top-notch and the setting is unique, with the Rockets gathering behind a row of trees behind one end zone before popping onto the field.
“Everyone is at every single game, all the time,” said senior Dylan Kalenze.
Ross said, “There’s nothing better than small-town football, when the lights are on and there’s usually some type of activity going, some type of feed. People are coming early and the music’s playing. There’s nothing like it and I think the kids feel that when they run out on the field.”
The Rockets are two-way players, as is the norm for nine-man teams. Playing on both sides of the line means you better have rugged athletes, and Underwood has them. One senior, Joe Onstad, is missing the opening days of camp because he’s at Army basic training in Georgia.
Another senior, Coy Thorson, is as tough as they come. The running back/linebacker/punter is also a Minnesota High School State Rodeo Association champion in saddle bronc and bull riding. He suffered a broken jaw two years ago when a bull’s horn sandwiched itself between his rodeo helmet and facemask; after healing up, his jaw was broken again on the football field.
Thorson is one of seven returning starters in 2015, which is a darn good way to begin the season.
“A lot of them saw a lot of playing time last year,” Ross said. “Experience is definitely one of our strengths.”
BY THE NUMBERS
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