From the left, Spartan football captains Tucker Haakonson, Camdryn Bauer and Drew Schneider, with head coach James Herberg. (Renee Jones Schneider / Star Tribune)
COLD SPRING – The first sign this is a fall different from any other is obvious the moment you see the Rocori football field, set behind the high school.
The goalposts are missing.
Yet the Spartans, their season on hold until March, are still basking in their stunning overtime upset of previously undefeated and No 1-ranked SMB in the Class 4A state championship game last November.
Players from Rockville, Cold Spring and Richmond — the towns that form the 51-year-old cooperative — are in frequent demand, to speak to young people or volunteer.
“We’ve always had a good football culture and a good fan base,” senior Luke Humbert said. “But the respect we’re getting after last year is amazing. Everybody wants the football players for something.”
Last Thursday they should have been on a bus to Fergus Falls for their season opener.
Instead, a group of players, coaches and parents gathered near the entrance of the empty football field, fondly remembering 2019’s fireworks and wistfully accepting 2020’s fall with no football.
It just didn’t feel right.
“Fall is for football,” senior defensive back Camdyn Bauer said. “Not to have that, it feels kind of weird.”
Title like no other
The drama of Rocori’s last game has players and coaches still shaking their heads at the improbability of their back-to-back do-or-die plays.
Trailing 21-14 in the extra session and faced with fourth-and-15, quarterback Jack Steil rolled right. He threw a pass to receiver Jayden Phillippi, who caught it after falling early in his route, in the front of the end zone to make it 21-20.
Eschewing an extra point to extend the game, they went for a two-point conversion. Steil looked to Andrew Anderson, his favorite receiver who was tightly guarded by SMB’s Jalen Suggs. With the SMB star in perfect position to make a play on the ball, the throw somehow eluded Suggs’ hand and nestled in Anderson’s midsection in the front of the end zone.
Game over. Rocori wins 22-21.
It took stunned players a moment to comprehend what they had accomplished.
“I couldn’t see the play. I was watching on [U.S. Bank Stadium’s] big screen,” senior linebacker Drew Schneider recalled. “It took me a few seconds to understand what happened. Then it was like, ‘We did it. We won state.’ We all went crazy.”
Coach James Herberg said, “In overtime, we had zero disbelief that we were going to win that football game.”
The time after the game was largely a blur to players, save for a balky stadium elevator that trapped many of them, still in their uniforms, for up to 50 minutes.
“There was, like, 40 of us on there. One kid passed out,” said senior Tucker Haakonson, who had a key first-half interception to stop an SMB drive.
“When we finally got to the locker room, all of our stuff was laying on the ground outside it because we had to get out of there,” Schneider said.
Added Haakonson, “I didn’t get to shower until I got home.”
Co-captain Tucker Haakonson wore his championship ring from last year. (Renee Jones Schneider / Star Tribune)
Reliving the game, especially in the absence of playing this fall, is a favorite pastime among the Spartans.
“I think I’ve watched the whole game back about five, six times,” Humbert said. “But the last two plays? About 25 times. I still get emotional.”
Against that emotional backdrop, the Minnesota State High School League’s decision to move football to spring sapped the anticipation of the Rocori team and the community for an encore effort.
“When we heard about it, our group chat just blew up,” Schneider said. “What were we going to do?”
Herberg, a 2005 Rocori graduate, said it was “definitely a tough pill to swallow, but it was largely out of our control,” he said. “So we sat down as a team and rewrote our goals. We looked at things from a different perspective and we’re trying to stay positive.”
The rest of the Rocori faithful is realizing that crisp fall Friday nights will need other plans for the first time in memory.
“I think the parents are taking it harder than the players,” said Jon Acheson, president of the Rocori Booster Club. “Most of them aren’t sure what they’re going to do now.”
Acheson, following the team’s lead, said the Booster Club decided to redirect its added time and unspent resources. Ground will be broken soon on an artificial turf field. Hence, the missing goalposts.
“And it’s 100 percent privately funded,” Acheson said.
Senior Raelyn Brangs, who works at the renowned Cold Spring Bakery, worries that she’ll be missing out on traditions previous classes took for granted.
“I’m a little bummed out,” Brangs said. “We won’t have the Rat Pack [Rocori’s raucous student-led cheering section]. And no homecoming. It’s kind of harder because it’s my senior year.”
For parents, it means adapting to a significant change in routine. David Blattner, whose son Brady is a junior, expects his sons to drag him out for more goose hunting.
“Fifty-nine years old with bad knees, I don’t go through swamps that much anymore” he said with good humor.
Paula Thelen has a son, Carter, on the team, and an older son who plays for Gustavus, which also is not playing football this fall. “We lose our whole weekend, Friday and Saturday,” she said and laughed.
Greg Beaumont, a former girls’ and boys’ basketball coach, has been a member of the gameday chain gang for 15 years. “It’s going to be hard to fill that time,” he said.