MADELIA – Outside a back door to Madelia High School, a few footsteps from locker rooms and the gymnasium, were a dozen bicycles. The bikes – not one of them chained to a tree or anything else -- were in varying postures, some leaning against the exterior wall and others appearing to have simply collapsed on the grass. It was Friday, and it was football night in Madelia.
High school football will kick into high gear next Friday, when teams all over the state play their first games. A select few opened a week early, which was the case when the Jaguars of Granada-Huntley-East Chain/Truman came to play the Madelia Blackhawks in a nine-man contest in this community 24 miles southwest of Mankato.
Nine-man football can be explained with this statement: Take out the tackles. That means three offensive linemen. At one point during the first half, GHEC/T coach Bennett Senf wanted to have a word with his guys and hollered, “O line, over here!” Center Dylan Benes and guards Caleb Benes and Matt Heckman – the entirety of the starting offensive line -- hustled to his side. Heckman, the right offensive guard and a 6-foot-5, 220-pound sophomore, wore number 8.
Another oddity: These same two teams will meet again on the same field in early October. Nine-man schedules are often written down in pencil at first and sometimes change because of such vagaries as school districts forging new cooperative teams (which can bump them up into Class 1A) or schools, on short notice, dropping varsity football because of low participation numbers. Let’s not even get started on the fact that in some sports athletes from various combinations of Friday’s competing schools are on coop teams, such as the M(Madelia)/T(Truman)/GHEC/ML(Martin Luther) Jayhawks in girls and boys track and field, coached by Madelia head football coach Nick Willaert.
Ninety minutes before kickoff Friday, Nick’s brother and defensive coordinator, Steve Willaert, was standing at a white board inside the school, 34 players watching and listening intently.
“No more talk. No more ‘potential,’ ” he said. “Let’s go out there tonight and prove to everybody, prove to yourselves, what kind of team you’re capable of being. Should we do that tonight?” (The response: “Yes sir!”) “Do you want to do that tonight?” (“Yes sir!”) “Let’s get it done.”
Shortly before kickoff, the 24 GHEC/T Jaguars in uniform took a knee in the west end zone to hear Senf’s final words. They were splendid. “Twenty-four as one, there’s nothing stopping us,” he said. “Love will get us there. I love you guys. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be than coaching you guys.”
In the end, Madelia got it done but not without a few fits and starts, which was no surprise for game No. 1. The Jaguars scored on the opening drive, with Owen Wolter throwing to Clay Gieseke for a short touchdown. Josh Sletta ran for 42- and 30-yard scores on Madelia’s first two drives to give the Blackhawks a 13-6 lead. After Wolter hit Carter Spear for a 38-yard TD, Madelia led 13-12 at halftime.
The Blackhawks spent intermission inside a two-lightbulb equipment shed behind the east end zone. They knew they had bungled their second drive in the second quarter, with two touchdowns called back by penalties. On one of them, the flag flew along the GHEC/T sideline; Madelia coaches barked from across the acre as Senf, recognizing the correctness of the call, smiled and said, “Those guys gotta watch the rules meeting videos, baby!”
Inside the shed, Nick Willaert said, “We’re killing ourselves. Let’s run the plays like they were designed and we’ll be fine.”
Rain began falling during halftime and lasted most of the third quarter. The mudders took over and Madelia finished the game with 301 rushing yards. Every Blackhawks play in the second half was a run; Logan Anderson scored from 18 yards and one yard, and Angel Zamora scored from 38 yards in the last two minutes for a final score of 32-12.
Senf told Fairmont Sentinel sportswriter Kyle McAreavy how proud he was.
“It’s a very young team. We have four seniors and one of them never played. Our starting guard, Matt Heckman, he came out on Monday. We literally built this in three days and there’s nowhere to go but up. We were right there at halftime, we just need to finish. I think if this squad stays together, it’s such a dangerous team. I’m very proud of our effort, I’m very excited going forward. We have a lot to work on, but boy we did some great things.”
Off the field, the evening’s atmosphere was somewhat low-key, probably based on two facts: a rainy day and the teams’ combined record of 4-14 last season. There was no lack of enthusiasm by the cheerleaders, however. The GHEC/T cheer squad, the first for a football game in at least a decade, was excited. The same mood permeated the Madelia cheer squad, which included a calm, friendly poodle named Jingles (wearing the school colors). Hip-hop music played on the public-address system before the game; during the game announcer (also the Madelia/Truman/GHEC cross-country coach) Kris Demaris – one of few females handling such duties -- was fantastic. Claire Dau, sports director at KEYC-TV in Mankato was there along with Mankato Free Press scribe Chad Courrier, not only a sports reporter but an MSHSL basketball official, as well … talented and committed on both fronts.
Following the final whistle, Nick Willaert spoke to a happy bunch of Blackhawks after they had cleared the first hurdle of the new season.
“Hey, nice job,” he said. “We need to learn from this. First thing is we have to maintain our focus; we see what happens when we do and what happens when we don’t, right? It’s the good and the bad. In the second half you guys did a really good job.”
As the boys disbursed for hugs and congratulations from family and friends, Sletta was on the phone, ending the conversation with, “Thank you. Love you.” Josh then spotted a visiting reporter, walked over wearing a smile and said, “Thanks for coming to our game.”
Turns out Josh’s dad, Jason, was in Utah on a long-planned trip that was booked before the football schedule was finalized (see above: “written down in pencil at first”). One of Josh’s cousins had kept Jason up to speed over the phone as the game progressed.
Josh was all smiles, like everyone else from Madelia. The GHEC/T Jaguars, although disappointed, had lots of reason to be proud and excited, just as their coach said.
The rain had stopped and the 10 o’clock news was near so folks headed home to watch Claire’s TV coverage. Some of them traveled on bicycles.--To see a photo gallery, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn