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John’s Journal: Top 10 Honorable Mention/ Spartans For Life

St. Clair/Mankato Loyola Football Forges Strong Bonds

Posted: Friday, July 1, 2022 - 12:20 PM

Here is the fifth and final Honorable Mention entry as we highlight my favorite John’s Journal stories from the 2021-22 school year. Next week I’ll begin posting the Top 10 stories, beginning with No. 10.

Today’s story actually began in 2018 when I wrote about a first-year cooperative football team with players from St. Clair and Mankato Loyola. The players who were freshmen in 2018 were seniors in 2021, so I revisited the team.

Here’s the story (including a link to the 2018 story) that was originally posted last Oct. 17 …

Four years ago, I wrote about a unique high school football team. On a sunny October Saturday afternoon at Waterville-Elysian-Morristown, I watched the St. Clair/Mankato Loyola Spartans finish their first season as a combined, cooperative team.

The Spartans lost to the W-E-M Buccaneers in that section semifinal playoff game, but that’s not what I remember. The lasting memory is what the Spartans did following the game, after shaking hands with and congratulating the Buccaneers. They listened to their coach, St. Clair principal Dustin Bosshart, who told them, “The coaches who coached you will be there for you for the rest of your lives. You will remember the lifetime memories you created. You did it the right way.

“You are a great group and you will accomplish incredible things in your life. Spartan family for life, that’s what you guys are.”

As I wrote then, something special happened...

The players’ families and friends stood 20 or so yards away, waiting for the team’s private moment to end. And then another incredible thing happened: It didn’t end.

The players remained together, some hugging, some finding one or more of the coaches to say thank you and share an embrace. Coaches patted boys on the helmet, returned the thank you and told them they loved them. The boys then gathered together once more – not wanting the moment to end -- each of them kneeling, for a few private words. Helmets removed and heads bowed, they prayed.

And then, only then, did the boys begin reuniting with their families. A strapping teenager hugged his grandpa and wept on his shoulder. Moms, dads, friends offered congratulations and condolences on the end of a great season.

(You can read that story from Oct. 27, 2018 by clicking here and scrolling to the third headline, “Spartans For Life: Lessons Learned On The Football Field … )

The ninth-graders on that team are now seniors, and the football coop remains in place. Then as now, in the winter and spring many athletes are either St. Clair Cyclones (from a public school) or Loyola Crusaders (from a private school). But during the football season, every player is a Spartan.

If not for the cooperative agreement, each school would have a very tough time fielding a football team. This year, about 75 percent of the football players come from St. Clair (9-12 enrollment of 219) and the rest from Loyola (105). The Spartans will take a 5-2 record into the regular-season finale on Wednesday, hosting Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop in St. Clair. The team splits its practices and home games between the fields at the two schools. The city of St. Clair is southeast of Mankato, 13 miles from Loyola.

Back in 2018, no one knew exactly how the players would come together. They needed a little prodding at the first summer camp workout.

“I’m looking around, and there’s a Loyola group in one spot, St. Clair upperclassmen over here, St. Clair younger kids in another spot,” Bosshart said. “I told the kids, ‘If this is going to work, this can’t happen. We have to be one group.’ Afterwards, I looked at the kids in the parking lot. They were exchanging numbers, creating group chats, and we were one team.”

There are 12 seniors on the 2021 Spartans roster, and they remember well what it was like when the now-rock-solid bonds began to be forged.

“Some of my closest friends go to Loyola,” said St. Clair senior Hayden Kasprowicz. “Thinking back to four years ago, I would have never, ever thought about that. I knew of people but didn't know them on a personal level. I think we were all kind of nervous but also excited.”

Prior to the football cooperative agreement, the two schools were already combined in wrestling, golf and soccer. Athletes in those sports are very familiar with driving between the schools for practices and games, and they enjoy their friends. But it wasn’t always like that.

“I was kind of nervous. I didn't really know all these people and it was a big change, especially coming from a small school,” said Colby Amundson. “But now, looking back, I was so happy that it happened. I would not be the person I am today, either, with the people I’ve met, the connections, the memories I've made with this team.”

Tyler Ahl said, “It's been really cool to meet new people and it's been a good opportunity to be able to see all these new faces and compete with them.”

The Spartans have a record of 23-11 in the four years since the coop started.

“They are a very competitive group,” Bosshart said. “It’s almost like watching brothers compete.”

That’s a word – brothers – that the players use when describing their teammates, no matter which school they attend.

“We didn't really want to coop at the beginning. But then we were brought together, and I’ve made lifelong friends,” said Connor Andree. “We were big rivals, like we almost couldn't stand each other. It's crazy how you can judge someone, then once you get to know them, they're just great people and you're having fun with it.”

It’s true that the two schools are rivals in other sports. At volleyball matches and basketball games, student from each school cheer loudly for their teams but then mingle with their friends from the other school afterwards. Sam Carlson, the head coach of the Loyola boys basketball team, is an assistant coach on the football team.

“We're really good in basketball and they're really good,” said St. Clair senior Riley Fitzloff. “So it's a good matchup. And during those games, the gyms are just packed. We get fired up. Going into (the football coop), we weren’t really expecting things to go as well as they did. Now one of my best friends is from Loyola.  I liked how everything worked out in the end.”

There are even some special bonuses, including this: the football team plays two Homecoming games, one at each school.

“The kids have fun. They understand that football isn’t life and life isn’t football,” said Bosshart.

“It's been a fun process just getting to know some new guys, make some new friendships, on and off the field,” said senior Devin Embacher. “I think we really push each other, and it's just been fun getting to know everyone.

“We didn't really want to coop at the beginning. But then we were brought together, and I’ve made lifelong friends.”

--MSHSL media specialist 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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The Best Of John’s Journal From 2021-22/ No. 10: From Morning TV To High School Speech