With one game remaining in the regular season, the North Central Stars have yet to know what it feels like to lose a game.
It has been a season of change, sacrifices and determination, but the newly-formed co-op between the Littlefork-Big Falls Vikings and Kelliher/Northome Mustangs football teams has shown hard work and risks pay off.
Dave Westerman, one of the team’s head coaches from L-BF, had just returned to Littlefork from practice late last Monday evening when he called The Journal back about a story highlighting the team’s first and undefeated season.
“It makes for long days” he said of the 116-mile round trip between Littlefork and Kelliher for practice. “The (L-BF) kids get on the bus at 2:40 p.m...I think the increase in travel and the limited practice time has been the only issue we have needed to overcome.”
And while Westerman, other coaches and some of the players cite travel as the biggest challenge in forming the nine-man football co-op, everything else has fallen into place.
“The team gets along very well together; you would never know that some of these players have only been teammates for a few months,” Westerman said.
Only a few months
It has been less than year since the decision was made to co-op between the two schools for football. Participation numbers in the sport were declining at both schools, and options to keep the program going were limited.
In February, L-BF School Board Chairperson Keith Knaeble said he’d “been sick about (the decision) for two months.”
“It’s not an easy decision for any of us,” he said, just before voting in favor of the co-op, a motion that passed unanimously.
There were pros and cons to options presented and cost was factored in, too, but in the end, it came down to passion for the game.
“When it came down to it, it was between football or no football,” senior tight end Anthony Cipriano said. “We have earned everything we have accomplished so far. We have put in the work to be where we are at.”
No matter what, the boys just wanted to play a game they grew up playing. A game they loved.
“Things have been working out the way we wanted them to because of the hard work that the team has put in,” Westerman said.
The decision, so far, seems to be the right one.
“I feel it was the right choice,” said senior tight end Cam McRoberts. “We are family.”
Matt Kennedy, senior running back, agreed.
“This is a fun group of guys to play football with,” he said.
Comments like those from the players alleviated any concerns Westerman originally had.
“The only thing that I worried about was if the team would come together and have an enjoyable season,” he said. “Those reservations were dismissed quickly this summer when the team got together for barbecues and team workouts... This team is a great group of people.”
Coach Steve Geerdes, from Kelliher/Northome, agreed.
He said shared interests between players and efforts to unite off the field have helped team dynamic.
“(Players) have made the extra effort to get together over the summer and create friendships that have helped the team tremendously,” he said. “The coaching staff knew each other and had similar goals for their programs. This made working with the other coaches an easy transition and provided us the opportunity to learn from each other.”
The communities have embraced the North Central Stars, too.
“At first I was concerned that the co-op would not be well received by the community, but after they had a chance to see the positive experience it was providing our players I think they have embraced the team completely,” Geerdes said.
“The support has been amazing,” he said. “The communities have shown great support through fundraisers and traveling to games. Many of the parents have provided meals for the team before and after games as well.”
With playoffs on the horizon, the North Central Stars are scheduled to take on South Ridge High School in Culver, Minn., for its last game of the regular season Wednesday.
Both coaches are optimistic about what’s to come.
“I don’t want to sound overly confident, but we enter every season with very high expectations,” Geerdes said of the team’s performance so far. “Having a positive frame of mind is half the battle, the rest is just fundamentals.”
Westerman said the group needs to continue to push themselves to their full potential.
“Taking care of the ball and limited penalties are things that are within our control,” he said. “I want everyone to realize the amount of work that this team has put in to be where they are at this point. It has been a group effort by many. We are happy with where we are at this point but we are not satisfied yet.”