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John’s Journal: The Game’s The Same, No Matter The Location

Football Seasons Begins With Spectacular Zero Week Settings

Posted: Sunday, August 27, 2023 - 4:25 PM


Game night in Alden, Minnesota.


Postgame handshakes between the teams from Verndale and Sebeka.

A few minutes before kickoff, Mike Mahlen was concerned. Not so much about his football team or the opponent, but about the grass. The surface at Mahlen Field in Verndale, 41 miles west of Brainerd, was in thick, lush, spectacular shape for the 2023 season opener. The coach, however, wasn’t exactly thrilled with the length of the grass as the first game of his 55th season was about to start.

You don’t coach at the same place for that long and win more games than any football coach in Minnesota without worrying about the little things. The Verndale Pirates were about to meet the Sebeka Trojans; Mahlen knew speed was a strength of his team and he wished the grass had been cut a little shorter. Such concerns quickly vanished once the game started and the Pirates began sprinting and scoring.

Twenty-four hours earlier and 254 miles south of Verndale, music from Kanye West, Fall Out Boy and Yeat filled the pregame air in the town of Alden, 12 miles west of Albert Lea and not far from the Iowa border. The Knights of Alden-Conger/Glenville-Emmons and the Houston Hurricanes were about to start their football season, too.

Both games were special, because the first game of any season in any sport is special. In Alden and Verndale, these games kicked off the high school football season in Minnesota; they were Zero Week contests in nine-player football, two of eight such games Thursday and Friday. The rest of the state’s 340 teams will open their seasons this week.

Alden-Conger/Glenville Emmons coach Brady Neel, a 2015 Alden-Conger grad, offered a pregame recommendation to a visitor: Buy a corn dog. “They’re big at the (Freeborn) county fair,” the coach said.

At both sites – Alden and Verndale – the crowds included coaches from other teams, given the rare chance to watch and scout on a night when their teams were idle. The coaches mingled, joked and enjoyed fine carefree August evenings.

The first great play of the season came in Alden after the Knights’ first touchdown. On the extra-point kick by Landon Mattson, the ball sailed high through the goal posts and was caught 40 feet above the ground. That oddity was made possible because a few hometown folks were watching (and videotaping) the game from a scissor lift positioned on the fence line. As the kick flew, one of them made a perfect two-handed catch as the fans watching from planet Earth cheered.

In the second quarter Landon kicked an extra point on the other end of field, with the ball flying through the posts and over a chain-link fence onto a grassy area. As a young kid jumped the fence to retrieve the ball, referee Jake Kloeckner needled a visiting scribe who had been leaning against the fence, asking why he hadn’t lumbered over it to get the football. The answer: “Fifteen years and a thousand pretzels ago, maybe.”

In Verndale, the hometown Pirates started strong. After Tyler Amerud sacked the Sebeka quarterback on fourth down at the Verndale 40, the Pirates struck for touchdowns … twice in a row. A 22-yard scoring pass from Shawn Schmitz to Jaden Schulke was brought back by penalty, but on fourth-and-27 from near midfield, a screen pass from Shawn to Jaden got Verndale on the board.

The Pirates did plenty of scoring in their 40-6 win, and after each one the hometown fans broke into the school song. There was no band, no cheerleaders, no piped-in music, but no matter; the faithful performed a perfect a capella version, with hand claps throughout and hurrahs at the end.

Down in Alden, AC/GE cheerleaders Ava Avelar, Melany Gaytan Diaz, Ruby Page, Kaylee Slater and Kaci Wallin worked hard throughout the game. They kept up the spirit for their team (with students from two school districts) by yelling in unison, “Let’s go AC!” (clap clap clapclapclap) and “Let’s go GE!” (clap clap clapclapclap).

The corn dogs in Alden were as outstanding as advertised. For much of the evening, a steady line of people happily paid six dollars for one of the beauties from the Bruno’s Corn Dogs food truck. Some squeezed mustard and/or ketchup onto their dogs and some left them unadorned. By the end of the night, 164 had been sold.

Verndale’s Zero Week win was the 427th of Mahlen’s career (with 128 losses and three ties). He credits all his assistant coaches over the many years, including current staff members Greg Johnson, Matt Jones, Jeff Moore, Lance Edin, Mack Jones and Austin Ludovissie.

At places like Alden and Verndale, crowd control is not much of an issue. Both football fields are encircled by the hallmark of small-town games: a single strand of rope attached to metal posts. No one violates the boundary. Both fields are situated on the edge of town, with farm fields and silos framing the horizon. In Alden, a neighbor watched the game through a window in his house.

While the Verndale-Sebeka game lacked much drama, the ballgame in Alden had more than enough as the teams traded the lead back and forth. After Alden-Conger/Glenville-Emmons scored on a long pass play to tie the score 28-28 with 8:22 left in the fourth quarter, the Knights forced a Houston punt. That gave the home team the ball with six minutes to go when during a water break -- one of several called by the officials on a hot evening -- a Knights assistant coach told the team, “Here we go! Drive down the field and break their hearts!”

With five seconds on the clock, Mattson lined up a 32-yard field goal attempt for the win. This one sailed wide of the left goalpost and nowhere within reach of the sure-handed crew high up on the scissor lift.

Houston had the ball first in overtime, scored on fourth down and got the two-point conversion and lead 36-28. The Knights found the end zone on first down, went for two and were stopped. Houston 36, AC-GE 34. The heartbreak was on the home side of the field, yet lessons were learned.

We’ve got a lot of heart. We’ve got a lot of fight,” said Neel, the Knights young coach. “We were down at halftime and really kind of confused at what we were going to do. But we sat down with our seniors, they kind of stepped up and our second half was a lot better than that first half. We made a lot less mistakes and we have something to improve on for next week.”

In Verndale the next night, the length of the grass was not much of a factor after all. But Mahlen, the 75-year-old head coach and always the perfectionist, talked to his players about the importance of better tackling as the season moves on.

After the postgame team huddle disbanded, players posed for photos and chatted with family and friends on the sacred field that has seen the Pirates win two state championships and finish as state runner-up three times in 17 trips to state.

“He really pushes us to be our best,” said Jaden Schulke. “He expects 100 percent on every play and he expects us to win. He expects a lot out of us.”

Shawn Schmitz said it was an honor to play for Mahlen. “He’s one of the greatest coaches to ever coach football.”

Neel is in his third year as a head football coach, Mahlen is in his 55th. That’s a big difference, but there are many similarities. Preparation is key, of course, as is execution. That’s what the first game of the season, any season in any sport, is all about. Learn from your mistakes, tighten up the loose ends, get better.

And maybe, just maybe, cut the grass a little bit shorter.

--To read previous coverage of Alden-Conger/Glenville Emmons and Verndale, click here and here

--MSHSL senior content creator John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] 

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