MAHNOMEN – The hospital in this northwest Minnesota town is close to the high school football field. Very close. Maybe too close. It’s right across the street, just a few paces from the home sideline for the Mahnomen Indians.
After Week 3 of the football season, Mahnomen Health Center appeared to be on the brink of being home away from home for the Indians. Was it a coincidence that a big red electric sign screamed “EMERGENCY”?
“We’re in disarray right now,” coach John Clark Jr. said a few days before the Indians hosted Lake Park-Audubon last week in a game between unbeaten teams. In a 35-14 victory over Fosston seven days earlier, injuries stacked up like firewood.
The starting quarterback suffered a shoulder injury and left the game, the backup quarterback went out with a broken wrist, and the third-string quarterback was already sidelined with a concussion. Jon Hoffner, a senior running back who played a little at quarterback as a freshman and then missed two seasons because of injuries, became the emergency QB. And that’s not all. The Indians’ two starting running backs also left the Fosston game with injuries.
Mahnomen has won the last two Class 1A state championships and came into the Lake Park-Audubon game on a 31-game winning streak, the longest current streak in Minnesota (the state record is 76 by Stephen-Argyle from 2003 to 2008).
But heading into Week 4, questions surrounded the Indians: Are they vulnerable? Was this a true emergency?
It took all of two plays to find the answer. Junior quarterback Tom Pavek -- with his left (non-throwing) shoulder all strapped up after suffering a separation and three sprained ligaments a week earlier – ran 65 yards for a touchdown on the second snap. The next Mahnomen possession ended with another strong statement of the same distance, a 65-yard pass from Pavek to Luke Warnsholz.
Pavek added scoring runs of 61 and 23 yards, Dylan Reitan (another resurrectee from the Week 3 injured list) ran for touchdowns of 11 and nine yards and Mahnomen sailed to a 45-7 win. Crisis averted.
“We kind of went through this last year and we were able to weather it,” Clark said of the injuries. “The kids are excited, they know they are close to playing. That’s small-town football.”
Small-town football indeed. A few hours before kickoff Friday, Clark was walking across Main Street in this town of 1,214 people. A guy sitting in a parked car hollered out the window, “Clark! Good luck!” The coach replied, “Thanks bud! See you there!”
There is plenty more to Mahnomen than football. The Health Center cares for people from all over the area, White Earth Tribal and Community College and the Mahnomen Public School District provide quality educational opportunities, and Shooting Star Casino and Hotel is a popular destination. But in the autumn, football is king.
“This is a special place and football is at the core of that,” said Clark, who grew up in the nearby town of Ogema and graduated from one of Mahnomen’s longtime rivals, Waubon High School, in 1990.
Football fans in Mahnomen know how to get to the Prep Bowl, whether it’s held in the Metrodome, the University of Minnesota stadium (the championship game site for 2014 and 2015) or the new Vikings stadium, which will begin hosting the Prep Bowl in 2016. The Indians made their first state tournament appearance in 1974, and they have been regulars ever since.
In fact, no high school team in the state has played in more Prep Bowls than the Indians, who have done so 13 times. They own eight state championships, coming in 1980, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1998, 2012 and 2013.
The first six of those state titles came when Hall of Famer Ken Baumann was the head coach. Clark was an assistant for two years before becoming head coach when Baumann retired in 2000. Baumann ranks fifth among Minnesota high school football coaches in career victories with a record of 287-66-2.
“It’s all about tradition here and we follow it every year,” Pavek said after the victory over Lake Park-Audubon, in which he carried the ball 12 times for 209 yards and completed three of seven passes for 106 yards.
Before putting on a varsity uniform, Pavek was a student manager beginning in sixth grade. Like most of the kids in town, he has been attending games as long as he can remember.
When I asked Pavek why the team has been so consistently strong, he said, “It’s all about winning the next play.We just fight through each thing, whether it’s getting that extra yard before the first down or stopping the other team on fourth team.”
When Clark was growing up in Waubon, he wondered what made Mahnomen special on the football field. And even now that he’s the Indians coach, he doesn’t seem completely certain of the specific reasons for the success.
“You always wondered, ‘How are they so good?’ or ‘What makes them so good?’ You hear about the tradition and all that. And to be a part of it, it’s a special deal. It’s hard to explain, hard to describe. It’s in the blood, it’s in the water up here.”
Clark had warned me that Friday’s crowd wouldn’t be as big as when the postseason rolls around. It was impressive nonetheless, with fans watching intently and cheering throughout the game. The noise level will only increase as the season moves along toward the ultimate competitive goal: another Prep Bowl.
“When you’re in the playoffs or at the Metrodome and you hear the crowd roar, that’s pretty special,” Clark said. “It’s too bad more people don’t get to experience that.”
--To see a photo gallery from Mahnomen, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 74
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 2,663
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn