Harlan Week

chocolate-chip-cookiesAfter attending my first game at Merrill Field in Harlan in 2010, I decided I was going to give my best effort to get to a game there every year. It’s a terrific facility, the atmosphere is great, the football is always fierce, the concession stands are second to none, and the drive is reasonable. So Quinn and I will road trip west this Friday.

I spoke with Coach Curt Bladt several times that fall and one of my favorite quotes was when he was telling me how he motivates his players every season. He said with a laugh, “We just have to remind the kids that everybody hates us.”

I don’t think that most football fans outside of Harlan really hate the Cyclones, but I know how rivalries work and how parents/fans can get pretty tired of getting drubbed year after year by the same team. So if folks don’t exactly hate Harlan, I can understand how some have perhaps built up an unhealthy frustration over the past few decades. Okay – and some people do hate them.

Those folks might be feeling a distorted satisfaction this year with the Cyclones having dropped three games in a row. I read somewhere last week when they lost their second straight game that they hadn’t done that since the early ‘70s, so I’m going out on a limb and saying that they have never lost three in a row under Coach Bladt. (Sorry for the lack of research, but this blog is for entertainment purposes only.)

Instead of being resentful of the dynasty programs for their success and reveling in their down years as a chance to beat them, haters should raise their own bar, understand what got the great teams to that level, and help their kids figure out how to get there themselves. When the great programs like Harlan, Madrid, Decorah, Solon, etc. practice, they are working to make themselves better – they’re not worried about what anybody else is doing. Most coaches certainly understand that, but fans and parents should also heed the “hateless” philosophy. Hate is a drain; optimism builds.

I hope Harlan turns things around quickly, because a year without a deep playoff run by the Cyclones is like a day without sunshine. And maybe that turnaround will start Friday in Harlan against Atlantic. Whatever happens, Quinn and I will be there to soak in everything that is Harlan football and enjoy way too many of the freshly-baked concession stand cookies.

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North by Northwest

NWThere is an intriguing game this Friday being played so far in the northwest corner of the state that if it was much farther north or west, it would be in Minnesota or South Dakota. Perennial small-school powers Emmetsburg and West Lyon will play in Inwood in a matchup of programs that not only win with amazing consistency – they are the epitome of winning the right way.

Anyone that knows just a little about high school football history has heard of Emmetsburg and is aware of their tradition, legacy, and the contributions they have made to high school football in the state of Iowa. I won’t go into any of that in this space because I’ve already done it in another space. (Here!)

Although I touched on West Lyon in my book, they probably don’t get the credit they deserve as one of the top programs in the state. Maybe it’s because of their “remote” location; I don’t know. But the Wildcats have put up numbers worthy of the word “dynasty.” They are tied for 15th in the state with 24 playoff appearances all time. (First on that list – Emmetsburg with 38). Since Coach Jay Rozeboom’s arrival in 1992, the Wildcats have won four state titles, including the Class A championship last season.

Emmetsburg and West Lyon aren’t exactly neighbors – it’ll be a 100-mile bus ride for the E-Hawks Friday. But they’re close enough to be considered in the same neck of the woods in the broad context of geography of the state. I’m often intrigued how schools in certain “pockets” of the state seemingly produce excellent athletic teams year after year. Northwest Iowa seems to have no shortage of excellent programs in all sports – and it’s often the same schools again and again. I’ve heard many folks explain this phenomenon with the old joke, “Well they don’t have anything better to do!” That’s short-sighted and more than a little rude, but it’s not entirely incorrect in this case. E-Hawks Coach Mike Dunlap once told me about life in Emmetsburg, “Not everybody wants to live three hours away from a mall.”

Malls or no malls, I believe that part of the explanation for sustained success is that these folks in the northern hinterlands of our state are descended from hearty stock that were serious about tradition, hard work, and excellence, and those attributes have been passed down through generations. The northern European immigrant influence is still evident in both towns – Inwood’s ancestry is mainly Dutch and Emmetsburg’s is mostly German – and their rosters are still peppered with names like Schultes, Schleisman, and Schiek; and Van Roekel, Van Beek, and Ter Wee. The early Dutch settlers to America had a credo of “ever family, faith, and farming.” Add “football” as a fourth “F” in that saying and it’s still relevant today in both communities.

These two teams are no strangers to each other. They have met in the playoffs 11 times, including the 2008 1A title game that Emmetsburg won 3-0. They have also played frequently in the regular season and occasionally find themselves in the same district. Whenever they play, it’s always a “big game,” and this week (a non-district matchup) is no exception. Win or lose, both teams will go back to work next Monday with the goal of being better next week. And it’s not exactly a bold prediction to say that by the end of the year, both teams will be tough outs in the playoffs. But whether the Emmetsburg or West Lyon programs win 10 more state titles a piece or none, these programs will never lose focus of their main goal of turning boys into men.

Cold Seat, Warm Thoughts

chairWhen I settle into my seat in Greenfield on Friday night to watch the Earlham Cardinals take on Nodaway Valley, I’ll probably be a little irritated that the seat is cold and hard and generally uncomfortable. (Maybe I should invest in one of those stadium chairs; the heated, messaging version.) But while the bleachers and the unseasonably cold weather may get me down, I will be pleased about several things:

• The pre-game conversation wasn’t about some guy punching his girlfriend in an elevator.
• I will be relatively sure that nobody on either team has ever punched a girl, period. (Unless it was when he was 5, it was his big sister, and she just stole his ice cream.)
• Nobody in a Vegas sports book will be hanging on the outcome of the game.
• The officials aren’t paid “per flag.”
• I won’t have to raid my kids’ college accounts to pay for snacks.
• Nobody will be stressing about fantasy points after every play.
• Most of the players think that PED stands for perfectly engineered duckblind.
• Bob Costas won’t be there.
• Neither will Roger Goodell.

High school football players aren’t all choir boys and straight-A students, I know, and scandals in high school sports do occur. And the plays run on Fridays aren’t as crisp, there are more mistakes, and less sheer athleticism than in the games on Saturdays and Sundays. (Wait…and Mondays and Thursdays; and sometimes Tuesdays; and…) I’ll watch many of the games on those days, too, but there’s just something special about watching kids play the game who aren’t getting paid. (College players on scholarship – yes, that counts as getting paid!) Give me 30 or 40 guys gutting it out for the old alma mater over the rich guy with a signing bonus nursing a sore hammy in the cold tub while on his phone with his agent any day. And especially on Fridays.

Fair Weather

rainIn the most literal definition of the term “fair-weather fan,” I became one last Friday. No, I didn’t bail on my team in their time of need, but I did make the decision to not attend a game due to the rain. I don’t mind watching my own kids in bad weather (like I’ve done for most of 2014, it seems), but if I don’t have somebody playing, I’m less enthused about freezing or getting soaked – or both. So when I looked at the forecast in the afternoon and it said there was an 85% chance of rain with some severe storms possible, Plan B just sounded too good. I called Quinn and he concurred that the temperature-controlled comfort and soft, reclining seats of a theater were preferable to a potentially soggy and cold evening on hard bleachers.

The concession snacks we would have enjoyed were replaced with a pre-movie meal of the giant burritos at Panchero’s – another good tradeoff. Then we went and saw “When the Game Stands Tall,” the story of Bob Ladouceur, the legendary coach of De La Salle High School in Concord, CA. In 34 years, he had a record of 399-25 and his teams went undefeated 20 times, including a mind-boggling 12 seasons in a row. The movie revolves around the tail end of this 151-winning streak and how he and the team deal with ultimately losing for the first time in a dozen seasons.

What struck me about the movie was the similarity between Coach Ladouceur and the Iowa coaches I have come to know and others I have read about. The winning was great; but he was more focused on helping turn kids into quality young adults. The football field was his classroom for doing just that. Build character first; teach skills second; and the winning should start to take care of itself. Of course, raw athletic ability certainly helps – and he had plenty of that. As a Catholic school, De La Salle attracted top student-athletes from surrounding districts – and we know how that can be a little controversial.

cropped-fof.jpgCoach Ladouceur tried his best to stay out of the spotlight and didn’t want to take all the credit for the teams’ success. He even came to be somewhat disdainful of “the streak” because of the way the media and others outside of the program became too focused on the number instead of what the winning really represented. Every time he was offered a college job that would have been much more lucrative, he turned it down because that’s “not what I do.”

Quinn gave the movie an enthusiastic thumbs-up and I liked it, too, but thought the pace was a little slow at times. The cast isn’t exactly Hollywood A-listers and the screenplay is just okay. The movie didn’t have the emotional highs and lows of something “Remember the Titans,” and it may not end up on your list of favorite sports movies, but it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s a great reminder of all the Coach Ladouceurs we have working hard every day in all sports here in Iowa.