During the football regular season that has now come to an end, I had the great pleasure of seeing games in a wide variety of settings. I watched 11 games during the eight-week regular season, from Underwood to Rochester to Stillwater to Buffalo and elsewhere.
My Week 8 game plan was watching two games in two settings that could not have been more different. On Tuesday I went to a game that began at 4 p.m. on a youth football field in the Elk River countryside. A day later I was at Eden Prairie High School, where the games are the closest thing to college football that the Minnesota high school version can produce.
The only common denominator was what happened between the white lines: Eleven players on each side of the ball, five officials, one football. The differences, on the other hand, were most striking when the teams stood for the national anthem. In Elk River, one team had 17 players in uniform and the other had 19. In Eden Prairie, one had 91 and the other had 117.
TUESDAY: SMALL SCHOOLS, BIG FUN
At the Elk River Youth Athletic Complex, the team from Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf (MSAD) in Faribault played Spectrum, a small school in Elk River. MSAD, which was founded in 1863, has only 46 students in grades 9-12. Spectrum, founded in 2006, has 222 students and is fielding a football team for the first time this season.
The grass field and small gravel parking lot was surrounded by cornfields, marshes and forests, with a Cargill facility next door. There were no bleachers for spectators and no benches on the sidelines for either team.
People brought lawn chairs and blankets and some brought their dogs. Small children giggled as they rolled down a small embankment from where the fans watched the action. A couple of trains rumbled by in the distance.
On the Spectrum sideline came the usual sounds of football: “Stay low!” “Hit ‘em!” “Big play! Big play!” Across the field, the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf coaches and players were silent other than an occasional high-pitched celebratory yelp. Sign language is the language of football for the Trojans, with coaches frantically signing to each other and to the players; timeouts seem absolutely peaceful and non-frantic compared to most teams.
This was an 11-man football game, although MSAD plays mostly nine-man games as well as eight-man when traveling to meet opponents in other states that have eight-man football. That’s three different playbooks to memorize. This game was MSAD’s only 11-man contest of the season, and they had one day of practice using 11 players.
Following the score and game time may have required some squinting for the older eyes sitting on the hill. The scoreboard was a small portable model, plugged into an electrical outlet and positioned off one corner of the field. The scoreboard operator sat next to the board in a lawn chair. The public-address announcer sat at a folding table behind the visitor’s sideline, with his voice being carried across the facility via two portable speakers on either side of him.
A person with a video camera was easy to spot because he filmed from the top of a large stepladder on the hill.
Spectrum came away with a 22-20 victory, giving them a 3-5 record going into the Class 2A Section 4 playoffs. The loss was the first of the season for MSAD, which had defeated schools for the deaf in Kansas, Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri as well as Minnesota schools West Lutheran and E.C.H.O. Charter.
WEDNESDAY: BIG, LOUD AND PROUD
Eden Prairie’s enrollment is 3,007. Wayzata has 3,060 students. Those numbers start the conversation about the differences between miniscule schools and those of the mammoth variety.
This game between Wayzata and Eden Prairie was a rarity: the winner would claim second place in the Lake Conference. It’s not rare for the Trojans and Eagles to decide the league championship … if not the state championship. But the surprising Edina Hornets had defeated both in the previous two weeks and the Hornets captured the conference title as well as the top seed in the Class 6A Section 6 playoffs.
Wayzata earned the No. 2 seed with a 16-0 victory over the Eagles in a setting that provided all the sights and sounds that large-school football is famous for. The pregame pageantry included the Eden Prairie marching band circling the field on the running track, and a performance by a combined group of 60-some cheerleaders, pom squad and dance team members.
One of the most stark differences from the MSAD-Spectrum game came when the players from Wayzata and Eden Prairie lined up for the anthem. Each team had enough players to stretch nearly from end zone to end zone: 208 boys in all. The total from the game in Elk River? Thirty-six.
Eden Prairie plays on artificial turf, which has become common at big schools. There are enough bleacher seats for thousands of people, and most of them were filled for Wednesday’s game. The Wayzata students came wearing bright orange, while the Eden Prairie students wore all shades of pink.
The field was bathed in brightness thanks to six banks of lights towering above. There were no video cameras being held on top of stepladders; Wayzata used a telescoping pole to raise its camera above the south goal posts, and the Eden Prairie video crew stood atop high scaffolding.
Each school has its own athletic trainer. Eden Prairie’s trainer is Gary Smith, who as a younger man was the trainer for the 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey team. Wayzata trainer Chris Thein is another veteran.
At the MSAD-Spectrum game, there was no pressbox, few assistant coaches and no headsets for coaches to communicate with each other. Eden Prairie has a large press box for the announcer, timer and scoreboard operator, along with spots for television cameras, radio crews and reporters. In addition, each team has its own smaller box from where assistants with headsets talk to the coaches on the sideline.
The concessions at Elk River were spartan: a folding table held a selection of candy, water and soft drinks, with smiling Spectrum students waiting on the customers. Eden Prairie has several concession choices, including a building that houses the main menu items as well as a Culver’s tent where fresh burgers are available.
At both sites, there were stars on the field. An Italian exchange student named Filippo Caminati made the play of the day for Spectrum, taking the ball away from an MSAD runner and dashing 20 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown that sealed the victory for the Sting. Jordy Ildvad scored two rushing touchdowns for Spectrum. MSAD’s Brennan McDonough had two touchdowns, and teammate Shaun Novella caused a fumble that Tommy Ellenbecker returned for a Trojans touchdown.
On Wednesday, Wayzata’s Chris Pierson had two interceptions and blocked a punt that Drew Greely returned for a touchdown. The Trojans also scored on a short run by Jeff Borchardt and recorded a safety when a pass from the end zone by Eden Prairie quarterback Ryan Connelly was ruled intentional grounding.
The numbers – of students, players and fans – were very different from Tuesday to Wednesday. The settings could not have been further apart, and I’m not talking about geographical distance. But the action on the two football fields was exactly the same: Hard-working, well-trained athletes working together and doing their best in an effort to come out with a victory.
I can’t imagine two better places to be.
--To see photo galleries from each game, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 205
*Miles John has driven: 3,546
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn