Old Rivals

The Fields of Fall, Todd WeberThe first couple weeks of the high school football season in Iowa are loaded with interesting matchups. Teams either make the playoffs or not based on their district records, but this year these non-district games could be used as tiebreakers in the new playoff format.

But that’s not the only reason teams have to get motivated for early season games. Old rivals will be hooking up – and nobody will be thinking of these contests as pre-season.

The cities of Emmetsburg and Spencer are only 25 miles apart, and these neighbors first played football in 1913. Neither is fond of losing to the other. Back in the heyday of the series, it was not uncommon for the game to draw 3,000 fans in Emmetsburg, many of which would start showing up as early as 2:00 p.m. to get good parking spots on the roads with views into the stadium.

Friday’s game is in Spencer. Emmetsburg, winners of nine state titles, has a roster full of upperclassmen and will be trying to shake off three straight mediocre seasons – and three straight losses to the Tigers. Next week the E-Hawks play Estherville, a rival they first played in 1910.

Grundy Center will be playing Gladbrook-Reinbeck Friday – for the 98th consecutive year. For those of you that are bad at math like me, that dates back to 1919. Gladbrook-Reinbeck are the defending Class A state champions, while Grundy Center is a team on the rise that features senior Bryce Flater, who led Class A in rushing last season with 2,103 yards – including 199 in a week 8 loss to the Rebels.

One of my favorite matchups this week is North Fayette at Decorah. Despite being just 35 miles apart, these two storied powerhouses with similar philosophies don’t have a long history with each other – but they’ve played some entertaining games recently. Plus, I have a history with both programs that keeps them both near and dear to my heart! Read more about that here.

I’ll be in Van Meter where my hometown Earlham Cardinals will be taking on the Bulldogs. Using the word bitter to describe the rivalry between Earlham and Van Meter might a stretch, but it can get a little edgy. Earlham folks are (generally) friendly with Van Meter people; parents of kids from both schools (occasionally) socialize with each other (out of season); and both towns are clean, comfortable places to live. (Earlham’s convenience store is nicer.) But separated by just 12 miles and with a long history of hard-fought athletic contests between us, things can get weird on game days —no matter if it’s varsity football or an old-folks’ shuffleboard tournament. I know because I’ve been involved in a few (minor) youth sports dustups in the past. (Instigated by them, of course.) For both sides, losing to one another feels like an acid bath.

Hopefully any weirdness will be at a minimum Friday, because the football should be stellar. Van Meter went to the Dome last year in 1A and lost a tight game in the semis to Western Christian.  They graduated some key seniors from that team, but have some good athletes that will step up. Earlham has been trending upward the last few seasons and is led be a solid, experienced group of upperclassmen. And for Class A, they have some BIG boys. (As long as the IHSAA doesn’t start classifying bacon as a PED, it should be a good season for the Cards.)

(For more great Iowa high school football stories, click here to order my book – The Fields of Fall.)





Season of Change in Madrid

Madrid TigersIt’s hardly business as usual in Madrid as football season gets underway. There’s no way to ignore the void that exists with the passing of legendary coach Randy Hinkel last December. But there are still nine games on the schedule and a bunch of boys in orange and black that are eager for their turn in the tradition that is Tiger football.

“We have to move on, as hard as that is,” says new head coach Steve Perkins. “Randy was one of my best friends. It was hard for me. It was a loss of a friend. Our families were extremely close. But the team has to have someone to take them to the next step and move forward.”  

Perkins is prepared for that immense job. Coach Hinkel told me several years ago when Perkins was his defensive coordinator that he hoped he didn’t lose him to another school – that he would be a heck of a head coach some day and that his chance would be coming soon. Fate has delivered Perkins to this point in time with the Tigers. Having coached alongside Hinkel, he understands the expectations that come with the job and knows that winning isn’t the only thing that defines football in Madrid. 

“I’ve talked to the kids about the principles that we have in the program – everything that we have worked on and worked for. We’re going to continue that,” says Perkins. “You remember those principles and teachable moments that Coach Hinkel had – those are going to be the same things that we are going to use heading forward. We always use to talk about attitude, effort, and discipline and instilling those into the kids. I try to elevate kids’ level of play and instill confidence and pride and get the job done. We’re going to go out and have fun and compete to win football games and make them better people in life. Those are the main things that I’m focused on.” 

Perkins will switch over from the defensive side to run the offense, but don’t look for him to ditch the old Madrid playbook. Opponents will still have to deal with a rushing attack that is equal parts brute force, speed, and magic act, and one that routinely rolls up more yardage than a John Deere tractor. 

“I’m running the offense,” he says. “It’s a system I’ve been around for years. It’s what I know. I grew up in Britt. They’re a running team up there, too. That’s just the style of football I enjoy and pride myself on. And our kids do too.” 

Randy Hinkel had a coaching record of 314-80, but the impact that he had on his players, friends and the community can’t be measured in how many football games his teams won. That impact will be felt this season – and well beyond. 

“I’ve told the kids that the best way to honor coach Hinkel is to play hard, play fast, be physical, be disciplined, know your role,” says Perkins. “Build off the tradition of success that he has established and move forward into the future. The ultimate way to honor him is through your play and how you play.”

I’m thinking that Coach Hinkel would be okay with that.