Fifteen years ago, my oldest son put on a football uniform for the first time.
He suited up for South Dakota Junior Football in third grade, and I was prepared to hate it. I was sure I’d be the only parent on the sideline yelling, “That’s my kid. Don’t hurt him!” But almost immediately, I fell in love with being a spectator of the sport.
I love the crunching leaves and cool temps that come with fall games, the hot cocoa that warms you inside when you’d rather just head to a heated car and most of all the genuine effort that boys put into a game that pulls together strength, athleticism, coordination and guts.
Through the years, I’ve watched all three of my sons play junior football and eventually 9-man football for Baltic High School. That’s not to say it has all been wonderful.
There have been injuries that healed. There have been times when they badly wanted to be on the field instead of the sidelines. And there’s never been a winning season – until now.
The school’s sports history, handwritten and kept by former teacher Marv Miller and activities director Steve Gunderson on a couple sheets of paper, shows that the last winning season for Baltic High School was in 1983. That’s 32 years ago, possibly some kind of dubious state record.
That fall, Gunderson coached his team to a 6-3 season. A year earlier, he took the team to playoffs, ending with an 8-3 record after beating Woonsocket and losing to Geddes. The only other year Baltic made the playoffs was in 1997 with a 4-4 preseason record under Coach Jason Aberson’s guidance. There have been coaching switches here and there, but Aberson has again coached the Bulldogs since 2009, the year my oldest son was a senior.
During my second son’s high school years, the team won two games in four years. It’s not the worst record in school history. That’s from 1989 to 1994 when the team was 0-8 every year for 48 losses in a row.
I mention all of these dismal facts as a way to emphasize that things are drastically different this year.
The Bulldogs are winning and will head into the playoffs Tuesday with a 6-2 record, hosting Arlington-Lake Preston at Baltic’s stadium. This, my friends, is huge.
Sure, some big-school players probably would say, “Who cares. It’s 9-man.” I am here to tell you that 9-man is alive and well in South Dakota and it is great football. It’s the stuff of Hollywood movies.
Last year, I started tweeting the team’s games, something that got a little old when the Bulldogs stumbled to a 1-7 season. But in journalism, like in life, you have to be honest about the bad along with the good. Half of the teams in South Dakota lose every Friday night.
This fall, it has been way more fun tweeting touchdowns, interceptions and quarter scores at Baltic games. I’m even able to include some details, such as the yardage of key plays and who did the scoring.
The last few weeks, I’ve also sent out final scores for Langford, which is undefeated in Class 9B, and Britton, a Class 9AA team that my nephew plays for. I grew up in that area and have dozens of relatives living there.
I think I might be one of the only gals in South Dakota tweeting 9-man football. To me, sending updates from those games is like reminding people that high schools that have fewer students in their building than are on the Roosevelt football squad shouldn’t be forgotten.
I have no idea how my third son’s Baltic teammates will do in the school’s first playoff games in 18 years. But I know that folks in the crowd have ordered special T-shirts, moms have made food to fill those players’ bellies and the crowd, along with the coaches and players, will be excited and hopeful to emerge a winner.
It’s a word they have experienced finally, after 32 years.
Brenda Wade Schmidt has worked 30 years as a reporter and editor, all but one year at the Argus Leader. Follow her on Twitter @BrendaWSchmidt.