WAHPETON, N.D. – There are border towns and there are Border Towns. If humans who had no knowledge of state lines but owned the ability to ignore signage drove around Wahpeton and Breckenridge, Minnesota, they would think it was one village.
The boundary between the two towns and two states is easy to miss. The Red River is little more than a meandering creek here. The meandering lends itself to the local golf course, the Bois de Sioux Golf Club, where the front nine is in North Dakota and the back nine is in Minnesota.
So yes, these towns – and the people who inhabit them – are very closely linked. This relationship is exemplified when the football teams from the two high schools face each other in what is known as the annual Harvest Bowl.
“When the stands are packed and there’s all this excitement, it’s a really big thing for both our communities,” said Chad Fredericksen, the athletic director and head football coach for the Breckenridge Cowboys. Frederisksen said this as we were standing on the Wahpeton Huskies’ home field at North Dakota State College of Science before Friday’s game, the latest chapter in a rivalry that began in 1920.
To say the rivalry game is important to these communities would be an understatement. The football players grew up together playing on youth sports teams and they often hang out with each other. Their fans are easily recognized in the stands wearing Wahpeton purple and Breckenridge green. Some marriages are a Husky-Cowboy mix, and a common t-shirt carries the colors of both schools and the words “Border Battle.”
“That green and purple clashes,” smiling Wahpeton athletic director Mike McCall said to two young ladies, one from each school, as they hugged before kickoff.
Friday’s game went the way of the Huskies, who were 10-2 last season and were the state runner-up in North Dakota’s Class AA. Wahpeton came away with a 28-6 victory, the Huskies’ fourth in a row over the Cowboys. Wahpeton’s Carson Zarak threw long touchdown passes to Mike Poppen and Blaze Irwin, Isaac Erickson ran 20 yards for a score and Thomas Nelson fell on a teammate’s fumble as the ball rolled into the end zone. Breckenridge scored on a 78-yard pass from Nathan Blaufuss to Zarek Reiff.
The winner of the annual football games takes home the shiny Harvest Bowl trophy, which is topped with a golden football and sponsored by the Cargill corporation. The Cowboys and Huskies usually meet in the first or second game of the season, and a crowd estimated at 3,000 people filled the stadium Friday. The schools take turns hosting the game, and two years ago ticket sales were worth nearly $10,000 for Wahpeton High School.
Wahpeton has a population of 7,853 and a high school enrollment of 385 students; Breckenridge’s numbers are 3,386 and 234. That’s a total of more than 11,000 residents, and the annual football game is the biggest thing in town(s).
“For these communities, this is an absolutely huge game,” McCall said. ‘The rivalry maybe isn’t as fierce as it once was, but it’s a very spirited rivalry. Both communities come together and it’s a fun rivalry.”
Earlier this year, there were a few doubts about the future of the Harvest Bowl. With Minnesota going to a new district football format in 2015, fears arose that Breckenridge’s schedule would not have a spot for the game with Wahpeton. But the MSHSL’s district placement committee -- made up of coaches and administrators from around the state – ensured that Breckenridge would have room on its schedule to allow the rivalry to continue.
If the rivalry had ended, “I think it would be very hard for both communities to handle,” McCall said. “You’ve got a river separating the two of you and you can’t play each other? When you talk about ticket sales and everything else that goes on, seeing this game go away would be a very hard financial hit for both of us.”
Fredericksen said, “We’re so fortunate that the High School League was able to maneuver it and allow us to keep this game going. It’s worked out, we can’t ask for anything more.
“This game is something that our communities come together on. They really pride themselves on this. The atmosphere for these guys to play in; for a small town to have this kind of opening-date atmosphere, it’s just outstanding.”
--To see a photo gallery from Friday’s Harvest Bowl, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
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