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Posted by Guest (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/18/2012 11:36:40 PM

By Brian Jerzak
John’s Journal correspondent

I started the football season talking to Eagan’s version of The Pit and finished up the regular season with another of Minnesota’s famed Pits. One of the oldest football stadiums in Minnesota is in South St. Paul and is home to the South St. Paul Packers. On Wednesday Ettinger Field, nicknamed ‘The Pit,’played host to one of the biggest games of the week when one-loss St. Thomas Academy traveled to undefeated South St. Paul. The stands were packed and even had people watching from the guard rail on the shoulder of the road that runs along the visitors’ side of the stadium.

The field sits down in an old gully with large natural hills on three of the four sides of the stadium – which gave the curious onlookers from the highway a great view. The school is up on the hill behind one of the end zones; a field house with the word “Packers” in big red letters lords over the press box and the home side of the field.

“The stadium was built in the 1930s by the WPA (Workers Progress Association),” said former Packers athletic director Pete Veldman. “The stadium as you see it now was what it was outside of the seats that have been re-done and the press box which was donated by a booster of ours years ago.”

The WPA was a public works program to help combat the hard times people experienced during the Great Depression. There were a number of WPA programs at the time and the Packers’ field was one of them.

The basic layout of the field has been largely unchanged since the Depression.

“The stadium itself is like it was,” said Veldman, who was the South St. Paul athletic director from 1964 to 1993. “We have had new bleachers put in on (the visiting) side. We have had a concession stand put in and a garage put over (by the entrance), but the stadium itself is like it was.”

Ettinger Field has quirks that give the Packers a home-field advantage. The only way to get from the locker room to the field is to come down a narrow gravel path that is maybe wide enough for two players in full pads to navigate side by side. The slope of the path is extremely steep and long. Coming down the hill in football cleats can’t be the easiest thing to do, especially for opposing players who have never had to deal with the terrain.

The Cadets from St. Thomas had no problems once they got onto the field. The 3-4 defense of the Cadets held down the Packer offense and the STA offense took advantage of good field position. Wyatt Schmidt, who was part of a dominating defense, kicked two field goal, made all his extra points and put every one of his kickoffs inside the five or into the end zone.

The Cadets found something they liked right in the middle of the Packer defense. STA ran the ball relentlessly behind guards Shane Jann and Drew Garvic and center Alex Schwartz. The early benefactors of the dominant play up front were running back Pat McFadden and receiver/slot Danny McManus. McFadden scored from six yards out to give the Cadets a 10-0 lead near the end of the first quarter.

McManus was the next Cadet to get on the board. With Packers the defense forced to creep closer and closer to the line of scrimmage to defend the run, the senior beat one-on-one coverage on a skinny post and quarterback Keegan Zimprich put the ball right on target to expand the lead to 17-0.

McManus wasn’t just affecting the game on the offensive side of the ball. At defensive back he, along with guys like senior outside linebacker Parker Chapman – who almost singlehandedly stopped one Packers drive - were effectively shutting down the Packers’ punishing running game. They would give up some yards, but rarely even let the Packers near the red zone.

“Everyone was just doing their job,” said McManus, “not worrying about anyone else’s job. We just came out hard and came out hard every play.”

With last year’s epic section final game loss still in their mind, McManus and his teammates were not going to take anything for granted.

“Everyone on our team was fired up,” said McManus. “We remember how they made us feel at the end of the year. They played a great game last year and we just came out hungry.”
“So many people have bad memories of last year,” added Jann. “It really made us play a lot harder.”

When the dance team came out for the halftime show, at one time they would have had to run across a cinder running track. The famed field at one time had a cinder track around it, but it wasn’t a regulation track so there was talk of digging into the hill to expand the stadium. Veldman said they knew it would take too much concrete to hold the hill back. So instead of trying to change the stadium they took out the track and now have the track at the junior high just a few blocks away.

After the teams came back down the narrow, almost treacherous path from the locker rooms to the field, the first drive of the second half effectively put the game out of reach. McManus broke free and scored on a 57-yard touchdown to put the visitors up 24-0 just minutes into the second half.

The rest of the game was more of the same, with the Cadets defense dominating the Packers offense. Every time South St. Paul would string together a couple of first downs, they would commit a penalty or someone in the front seven would make a play to stall the drive.

McFadden scored his second touchdown in highlight-reel fashion. The run covered 15 yards, but he broke at least five tackles on his way to the end zone. Schmidt’s second field goal finished the scoring and gave STA a dominating 34-0 win and a share of the Classic Suburban Conference title with the Packers.

Although the game didn’t have the unbelievable drama of the last time these teams met, it was a beautiful night for a football game. The forecast called for cold and rain, but it was a nearly perfect fall evening to enjoy a football game. Regardless of the weather, it is always a treat to visit one of the oldest, most unique and best football stadiums in Minnesota.


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