FAIRMONT – Ninety-six high school football games were played in Minnesota on Saturday, and every one of them was important. That’s because this is playoff time and the losing team walks off the field and won’t back back until August of 2011.
With 96 games from which to choose, I went south to Fairmont on Saturday. Mahoney Field, home of the Fairmont Cardinals, is named after the late Tom Mahoney, a legendary coach and ambassador of the game. The current Cardinals coach is Mat Mahoney, Tom’s grandson.
Mahoney Field is nine and a half miles from the Iowa border, and it seemed like a fitting place to be while the Gophers and Iowa Hawkeyes met in Minneapolis. And yes, the Gophers had all kinds of fun in keeping Floyd of Rosedale in Minnesota, but the atmosphere in Fairmont – on the field and behind the scenes – was as good as it gets for high school athletics.
Things began in silence, as the unbeaten Montevideo Thunder Hawks sat on the floor and leaned against the wall in an auxiliary gym. It was 1:30 p.m., 90 minutes before kickoff. Four hours later, at 5:30 p.m., one team was the polar opposite of silent, chanting and singing in wild celebration. What happened in between was special…
1:55/ The Cardinals also sat in silence …as well as in the dark as they waited in a classroom to take the field for the Class 3A, Section 3 semifinal. Mahoney walked in, flipped on the lights and said, “Ready?” He talked about special teams, about being in the right spots, then said, “Where’s Buddy?” Kicker Buddy Anderson raised his hand. “Buddy, we’re gonna need you today,” the coach said. “We’re gonna score a lot of points.”
2:12/ The Cardinals walked from the school to the field in rows of six, holding hands. Mahoney was in the middle of the first row. Again, silence ... other than the sound of cleats on concrete.
2:49/ The Cards were inside their pregame/halftime/postgame room in the metal fieldhouse that sits behind one end zone. The silence had been erased, now the mood was rowdy. “We’re gonna have a great game, guys,” Mahoney said. “Here we go!”
3:08/ Kyle Guetter ends a 60-yard game-opening drive with a 2-yard touchdown run and Buddy does his job. Fairmont leads 7-0 and the band plays the school song, “Anchors Aweigh.”
3:17/ Montevideo ties it as Jake Douglas scores on a 1-yard burst.
3:21/ The Cards retake the lead when Ben Kain hits Alex Borchardt on a 17-yard TD pass. It’s 13-7.
3:25/ Mahoney sees the Montevideo offensive formation and shouts, “Watch toss! Watch toss! Watch toss!” As the play begins, he affirms, “Toss!” Public-address announcer Randy Quiring – also the mayor of Fairmont – intones, “Loss of a yard on the play.” That’s why you scout your opponents.
3:26/ The single most sensational play of the game is made by Fairmont defensive end Justin Barnes, who tips a pass by Thunder Hawks quarterback Brett Bergeson and intercepts it as he falls to the ground. This is also an omen; Bergeson will be picked off four more times and Montevideo also will lose a fumble. The handwriting on the wall begins…
3:59/ It’s halftime, Fairmont’s lead remains 13-7 and it’s still anybody’s game. In the fieldhouse Mahoney tells his most veteran players, “Seniors, this could be it.” But the halftime chat ends on a positive note: “When we’re back in here about an hour from now, we’ll be celebrating a victory.”
4:13/ One of three interceptions by Borchardt sets up the Cards at the Montevideo 14, and Ben Kain throws to Guetter for a 9-yard score and 19-7 lead.
4:39/ After the Thunder Hawks lose a fumble, Kain hits Bryce Holm for a TD on fourth-and-11 from the Montevideo 25. Back-breaker. 26-7.
5:05/ The call goes out on the Fairmont sideline, “Ace! Victory!” That’s the take-a-knee offense. The score is 33-7 and less than two minutes remain. Offensive coordinator Andy Traetow instructs Kain, “Tell the white hat we’re taking a knee.”
5:13/ As the final seconds evaporate, the official on the Fairmont sideline shakes Mahoney’s hand and says, “Coach, good luck next week.” The opponent in the section final will be powerful Glencoe-Silver Lake, which beat Redwood Valley 40-28 Saturday.
5:30/ Four hours have elapsed, the season has been extended by another week and the Cardinals are whooping it up in the fieldhouse. With the unbridled exuberance of teenagers, they count off their 33 points in unison. Then they sing a song and wave their arms, with the key lyrics being, “From East to West, the Cards are the best!”
Mahoney talks about the upcoming trip to top-seeded Glencoe-Silver Lake, the team that has ended the Cardinals’ season in each of the last two years. There is more work to be done if the second-seeded Cards are to reach the state tournament for the first since 1997.
“Weight room, 6:30 Monday morning,” he tells the boys. “We’re one game away!”
--See video of the postgame celebration, as well as a photo gallery, on the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 91
*Miles John has driven: 4,562
*Diet Coke Count: 3 for the day, 10 for the fall tournaments
--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn