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John’s Journal: Home Field Can Be Truly Home Or Somewhere Down The Road

For Owatonna And Hancock, Celebrating Football No Matter The Site

Posted: Thursday, September 7, 2023 - 12:04 PM


Owatonna Stadium/Federated Field.


Hancock's Chase Evink scored four TDs in the season opener. Photo by Grace Gallant.

Home is where the heart is. In high school football, that can mean different things to different teams.

--Owatonna, a Class 5A power, unveiled its new stadium – alongside a new high school on the southern edge of town – last week, and Owatonna Stadium/Federated Field is an absolute showplace. The Huskies will enjoy the stadium for years to come and everyone in Owatonna is rightfully proud.

--Hancock, which has competed in two of the past three nine-player state tournaments, is on the other end of the spectrum, playing its entire 2023 season on the road. The Owls’ home field is being rebuilt with drainage tile and a new irrigation system and will be ready for next season, but this year they are playing two “home” games at the University of Minnesota Morris Big Cat Stadium (nine miles from Hancock) and two at Minnewaska Area High School in Glenwood (24 miles away).

Hancock’s season on the road includes practices as well as games, because the Owls’ practice field also is being rebuilt. That means the football team car-pools to Morris for workouts, either at Big Cat Stadium or neighboring Morris Area High School. The Owls are used to being mobile, having moved at least one home game in each of the last five seasons to Big Cat because of standing water on their field after rainfall.

Traveling for every practice and every game is not the easiest thing, but the Owls make it work. And they are grateful.

“We want our kids to be respectful for what we're given,” said Hancock coach Chad Christianson after the Owls opened the season Friday with a 50-14 win over Norman County East/Ulen-Hitterdal at Big Cat. “We tell them, ‘We're given this opportunity to come play on this field so let's take care of it. Let's make sure we're picking up after ourselves and thanking people for letting us be here.’

Hancock will play another home game on the road this Friday, facing Border West at Minnewaska.

Owatonna defeated Hastings 42-7 last week in its first game at the new stadium, and the Huskies will travel to Chanhassen this Friday. Last week’s win was the 200th career victory for Jeff Williams, who has been Owatonna’s head coach since 1996. The Huskies have been to the state playoffs 10 times and have played in five Prep Bowls, winning state titles in 2013, 2017 and 2018.

The first game at their new home was a community celebration, with a large crowd on hand for a pregame meal on a roomy plaza next to the stadium. With artificial turf, a digital scoreboard, top-notch sound system and lights, the facility is a distinct upgrade from the classic old grass field next to the classic old high school in the middle of town.

“It's a lot different,” said Williams. “I was out there picking pebbles (at the old field). Tonight felt a little bit like a state playoff game, it reminded me of the state playoffs at Lakeville North, so it seemed like a bigger game. It felt a lot bigger than a season-opener against a nonconference opponent.

“The plaza was rocking before the game and by 6:30 there really wasn't a place to sit over on this (home) side (of the stadium). The music, the tunnel, everything was really cool.”

Both teams cruised to their season-opening victories. Hancock, which has a record of 38-4 since the start of the 2019 season, held a 26-6 lead at halftime in its first game since falling to Spring Grove in last season’s state quarterfinals. Chase Evink, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound junior, ran for four touchdowns, including bursts of 55 and 80 yards against Norman County East/Ulen-Hitterdal.

Hudson Ver Steeg, a 6-6, 245 Hancock senior, two-way lineman and punter, said playing no true home games “kind of stinks. I'm a senior and we don't have a home game, but we'll push through it. Road games are fun as long as we get the job done.”

In Owatonna’s win over Hastings, Huskies quarterback Jacob Ginskey completed 14 of 26 passes for 250 yards and four touchdowns. Caleb Hullopeter caught scoring passes of 20 and 10 yards.

“Our mentality going into the game was ‘We're not losing the game,’ and so we came out here flying around, made some plays and got the job done,” said Ginskey.

Williams said being ready to play is important, no matter the venue.

“We've played at U.S. Bank Stadium, we played in the Metrodome, we've never been distracted,” he said. “There's a way to do it. You soak it in, you enjoy the experience. And then as soon as you get to the sideline, it's focus up and I thought our kids did that right from the outset.

I’ll relax for a bit tonight and I’ll try to soak in some of it. And that’s something I told the kids, ‘Make sure you do that. Soak everything in.’ ”

At Hancock, an important game-day tradition is having the team walk several blocks from the school to the football field (which also serves as the outfield in baseball).

It's a nice march to the field and we’re losing some of that,” Christianson. “But you know, when we had that state run back in 2019 (when the Owls fell to Mountain Lake in the state championship game), I think we played on something like six different fields. And it's kind of nice to get kids acclimated to playing at different places.

“There's something special about being at home, though, so it’s kind of tough not having that this year, but it seems like the kids have bought into it and are really enjoying it.”

Winning certainly adds a lot of enjoyment, whether at home, on the road or somewhere in between.

“It's been a kind of a struggle,” said Hancock junior Levi Kellenberger. “But we all got it, we're all family.

“I’m really excited for next year. Our field is going to be really fun.”

--To see a photo gallery from Hancock's game vs. Norman County East/Ulen-Hitterdal, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

--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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