Some events are great and some events are beyond outstanding. Let’s tap into that latter category as I tell you about my trip to the great central Minnesota communities of Swanville and Upsala for a Week 7 football game.
The contest would end with one team – either the Upsala-Swanville Patriots or the Royalton Royals – celebrating with the Morrison County Milk Jug, one of a multitude of traveling trophies from rivalries all over the state.
We’ll get to the Jug, but let’s start at the beginning, which was Sept. 7 when I chatted with Hopkins High School athletic director Dan Johnson at a cross-country meet. He told me about meeting Swanville AD/teacher/assistant football coach/head girls basketball coach Aaron Gapinski and learning that Upsala-Swanville plays one football game in the afternoon each year. I sent an email to Aaron, received confirmation and we started making plans.
A few emails later my day was set. I arrived in Swanville at 10:30 a.m. and spoke to the entire high school student population (all 75 or 80 of them), talking about the MSHSL, what it does and my job. Then I was escorted to the kindergarten room to enjoy root beer floats with the kindergartens kids and the volleyball team, followed by pizza with some of the teachers. Food? Check.
Then it was time to drive 15 miles to Upsala. The two schools have their own identities: the Swanville Bulldogs and the Upsala Cardinals. They have cooperative teams in some sports, including football, in which they are the Upsala-Swanville Area (USA) Patriots. Once football season ends, the boys from the two schools will be rivals on the basketball court.
The Patriots play three of their four regular-season home games in Swanville, where Con Natvig Field has lights. The field in Upsala is unencumbered by electrical illumination and provided a lovely setting for Friday’s 2 o’clock game, about which the only word I can come up with is “idyllic.” There was bright sunshine, a cool breeze, fall colors everywhere. The combined pep band from both USA schools was on hand, with fans ringing the field, people sitting on lawn chairs and laying on blankets, and one kid climbing a tree to get a good view of the action.
Before kickoff I chatted with Con Natvig himself. Con began coaching high school football in 1966, is a member of the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame and is now a volunteer assistant with the Patriots in his 52nd year as a coach. He knows the game as well as anyone.
This was a good matchup between teams in the Mid-State District. Class 2A Royalton came in with a 5-1 record after advancing to the state quarterfinals last year. The Class 1A USA Patriots also were 5-1. The outcome would have an impact on seeding for section tournaments; Royalton in Section 7 and the Patriots in Section 4.
The Morrison County Milk Jug is a relatively new prize. Royalton coach Jamie Morford explained: “It used to be a heated rivalry and now it’s a very friendly competition. With conference realignment and district realignment, we kind of lost that. We wanted to do something to bring the excitement that was, so we came up with the idea for the Jug. It’s really brought a little added atmosphere to it.”
Small towns are always unique places and here’s one example: Swanville head football coach Jay Loven is also the chairman of the school board. And if you need gas, automotive repairs or want to purchase a vehicle, Loven’s Auto Center can take care of you. Jay is the third-generation owner of the business.
As the game began, Loven’s boys held their own in a defensive battle. Royalton’s first offensive series was marked by bad news when Royals quarterback Gavin Suska threw an interception, took a helmet to the thigh and limped off the field. He stayed in the game but was slowed the rest of the day, unable to roll out with effectiveness.
USA punted on its first three possessions and the Royals did so twice after the pickoff. But then the fans gathered around the field – and watching from a treetop – saw a trend begin to develop midway through the second quarter when Royalton running back Cole Wentland broke free on a 57-yard scoring burst.
Wentland added a 17-yard touchdown run on the Royals’ next possession and they led 13-0 at halftime. Any hopes of regrouping by the USA fans were dashed when the Patriots lost a fumble on their own 32-yard line to open the second half. Boom. Wentland charged 27 yards for another TD.
Suska threw off one leg to Zach Gottwalt for a 25-yard score before the Patriots got on the board with a 25-yard pass from Jorgan Kiley to Alex Thieschafer. Wentland closed it out with his fourth touchdown, a 15-yard run with 10 minutes to play. Final score: Royals 35, Patriots 8.
“USA’s defense is always very tough,” Morford said afterwards. “Jay runs a good defense and they’ve had our number. I just wanted to make sure we could pound away and do the things we wanted to do. Having Gavin get hurt, that changed some things, we weren’t able to throw like we wanted to. But the kids responded well.”
After the teams exchanged postgame handshakes, the Royals gathered up the Jug and cheered, thrusting index fingers into the cloudless afternoon sky. They settled down and took a knee to hear a few words from Morford. He reminded them that the regular season will end in a short week, with Royalton meeting Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg on Wednesday (and USA facing Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa, the only team to beat the Royals this season).
“Savor this for tonight,” Morford told the Royals. “But we’ll rock and roll on Monday. Wednesday comes quick.”
As he wrapped up his remarks, the coach had one request: “Hand me that jug!”--To see a photo gallery, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn