GRAND FORKS, N.D. — As a journalist, I try to go into every situation without a predetermined angle. Sometimes, though, one just stares you right in the face.
Last Saturday, the Minnesota Crookston football team, on its Senior Day, took the field before a crowd of 1,134 in an arena and a state not its own. The Golden Eagles came in at 0-9. They had lost to Minnesota Duluth 63-0 the week before, and Minnesota State 81-0 the week before that. They had two chances left, counting this game against Northern State, to avoid a fourth winless season in six years.
So when I decided that I’d write about the experience of UMC fans towards the end of another bleak season, I went in ready to adapt to whatever I discovered. But I still expected the final product to follow to the tried-and-true, through-thick-and-thin diehard route. That I’d find a group of passionate supporters who never give up hope that their lovable losers would turn it around, be it the next play, next quarter, next game or next season.
So is that what I found?
Well, sort of.
Whatever comes to mind when you think of a college football stadium, the Alerus Center is not that.
It is, objectively, a very nice place. But it bears no resemblance to the cathedrals of Ann Arbor, Baton Rouge and South Bend. It is 18 years young and feels like it opened yesterday. Walk past the locker rooms and you find a full-on convention center and 26,000-square-foot ballroom underneath the stands. It’s worlds away from UMC’s actual home, Ed Widseth Field, which in October was rendered unplayable due to muddy conditions, forcing the Golden Eagles’ three remaining home games here. Tiny Widseth is, itself, worlds away from the the Big House or Death Valley, but it is home to UMC and comes with all of home’s trappings. The Golden Eagles have an identity there.
“I do personally miss the home field,” says Alicia Kropuenske, whose son, Tyler, is a redshirt sophomore offensive lineman. “You miss out on the fans and the tailgating ahead of time.”
That’s college football in its most recognizable form: organic, uncontrollable, visceral, loud. Alerus is sterile, clean, comfortable, quiet. At least when UMC is here. All the lights are on, but the arena feels dark. One concession stand is closed, as is one entire side of the stadium. It’s not that the Golden Eagles aren’t welcome, but the vibe one gets is unmistakeably foreign.
The visiting Northern State fans only add to that feeling. They measure up at least evenly with UMC supporters and they want you to know that. Many tote cowbells, which they ring at every opportunity. After the last note of “The Star Spangled Banner” is sung, they rise to their feet as one and wave the small blocks of metal above their heads as if trying to start a small hurricane.
A “Let’s Go Eagles!” chant lasts one rendition.
Emmitt Stevens called his family on Friday night. The senior linebacker will play his last game in a week and he’s not particularly looking forward to it.
The Stevenses are from Albert Lea, six hours away. Clint, Emmitt’s father, knew nothing about Minnesota Crookston, except for the fact that his son wanted to come play there. Losing or not. “It matters some, but he just goes out and plays every game 110 percent,” Clint says. I ask him straight-up if he thinks the Golden Eagles can win, not because I don’t know how he’ll answer but because I want to hear how he’ll say it.
“Oh yeah,” Clint says. “If they play hard, play 110 percent and give it all they can.”
The Golden Eagles get the ball first at their own 23. On third-and-six, Jalin Scott rolls left and fires a pass to Eli Solberg. It’s an excellent pass on the move, spiraling tight and placed right to where Solberg can catch it in stride. The redshirt freshman does, and surges forward for an 18-yard gain.
UMC gets to midfield, punts and downs Alex Folz’s kick at the five-yard line. Teetering on a cliff above their own end zone, all Northern State can do is grip the edge. LaDerek McCray sacks Hunter Trautman on third down, and Nathan Coy returns the ensuing punt to the Wolves’ 31-yard-line. UMC looks … in business?
“They've had a lot of ridiculous fundamental penalties,” says Brent Robbins. “Last two games, that's been cleaned up.”
Robbins’ son, Tristan, is a sophomore quarterback from Muskegon, Michigan. Technically, he’s Scott’s backup, but the two have rotated drives. Next year, the job should be Tristan’s for good. The Robbins family also had never heard of Crookston before Tristan committed. They try to make it to about three games a year, but that figure would be higher if the drive was less than 16 hours. Brent says that Tristan could have stayed in-state to play Division III, but his goal was to play Division II, where the lights are slightly brighter, the competition is slightly tougher and there are scholarships to offer.
Brent speaks with the confidence of someone who’s watched his son play the most important position in America’s most dangerous team sport for 15 years. He’s not worried about Tristan taking hits behind an offensive line that doesn’t always match up physically. But he’s a realist.
“In the next two years of my son as the starting quarterback, he can win at least one-third of the games for Crookston,” he says. “ … For recruits, it would look favorable if they sit down with (offensive coordinator Jared Hottle) and (head coach Mark Dufner), ‘Well, what was your record last year?’ You could say, we're building our program, we won a third of our games last season.”
He’s drowned out by a symphony of cowbells as Scott is sacked, pushing the Golden Eagles out of field-goal range.
I head back to the press box, and as my back is turned, lightning strikes. Linebacker Austin Steele slams into a Wolves receiver on a reverse. The ball comes free, and Dylan Wheeler scoops it up in the end zone.It’s the Golden Eagles’ first lead in three weeks.
Tristan Robbins’ second throw of the game might be the best of his career. It whirrs over the belly of the Wolves’ defense and hits Kyler Banks’ hands like a magnet. Banks does the rest, easily dispatching the safety and racing into the end zone untouched. Seventy yards. 14-7. Northern State goes three-and-out on their next possession.
And now, Robbins can’t miss. UMC piles off chunk after chunk: Jonattan Mudd takes a screen pass 46 yards down the sideline. Robbins floats a perfect spiral into Mudd’s hands down the sideline for 29. The Golden Eagles aren’t just playing hard, playing 110 percent and giving it all they can. They’re straight-up overwhelming the Wolves. At this point, you’re thinking one of two things: “what if?” or “maybe?”
But those pesky penalties that Brent thought were gone come back with a vengeance. A false start turns a third-and-seven into a third-and-12. A holding takes away a first-down scramble into the red zone by Robbins. Two plays later, Robbins overthrows Folz and puts his head in his hands, knowing that he missed a probable touchdown.
Larson makes up for his earlier fumble, catching a 35-yard touchdown to tie the game with 1:31 before halftime. Then Folz, the special-teams MVP to this point, fumbles the kick return. The Wolves find the end zone four plays later, and a woman tries to begin an “I hate cow-bells!” chant.
UMC hasn’t led at halftime since Sept. 22, 2018. That streak will continue.
Kropuenske and Sally McRoberts, whose son Nathan is a punter, both are impressed with UMC’s atmosphere. “It’s a nice small community, everybody does support the program well,” McRoberts says. Kropuenske also liked the idea of a small school environment for her son.
Still, the game is not taking place in that community. At the break I come to the conclusion that everyone in the Alerus Center is either a player, related to a player, works for one of the teams, works in the arena itself or is covering the game.
Dufner said as much two weeks ago: “It’s not home.”
On the third play of the second half, Isaiah Cherrier breaks free and dashes 52 yards for a touchdown. Extrapolate that rate of scoring over the last three minutes for an entire game and Northern State would have 442 points.
“The whole triple-option that (UMC’s) running, not working,” says Seth Solberg, Eli’s brother. “Their bread and butter doesn't pick up yards, and that should be addressed.”
At least for now, it is being addressed. The Golden Eagles seem to have cut out their ground game entirely as Scott comes back in. He starts off with two straight darts to Coy and a 45-yard bomb to Mudd, who outmuscles his defender and high-points the ball along the sideline. The drive ends in a Jared McLemore field goal.
But now Trautman can’t miss. He hits on seven straight: 35 yards, nine, five, 11, 14, 30, seven. The sixth of those is a perfect back-shoulder fade to a 6’4 receiver to go up 35-17. The pressure that UMC brought in the first half isn’t coming anymore, and Trautman is simply standing tall and slinging darts. He’s in a zone.
“The defense has been better than they were last year,” Seth says. “The kids look like they're trying.” And still, there are moments where that’s the most you can say.
The Golden Eagles promptly march 83 yards to the Northern State two. First down is an incompletion in the end zone. Second down is Scott being dragged down after a scramble attempt. Third down is another incompletion. On fourth down, Scott’s pass bounces just in front of Folz.
The cowbells come back in full blow. The latest UMC chant — “bull-sh*t!” — is the first one to stick.
“Seems like they run the same play over and over again,” says Levi, whose nephew plays defense.
The end of any realistic hopes for the Golden Eagles is an amalgamation of every deficiency Brent, Seth and Levi have pointed to. UMC had four plays to go two yards. It should be able to push the Wolves back just enough in that time, but a small offensive line makes that harder to pull off. Instead, 75 percent of the time, it makes those two yards as long as possible, with passes into the end zone corner.
Northern State scores with 7:23 to play on Trautman’s third touchdown pass. The Wolves’ last five touchdown drives, by time of possession: 2:21, 0:44, 1:20, 2:33, 1:08. It’s like they’re so disgusted that this winless team is hanging around that they’re trying to make a point by not just scoring, but by crushing their spirits as quickly and ruthlessly as possible.
The Golden Eagles go 96 yards in 111 seconds on their final drive. The last play is a 36-yard pass from Scott to Robbins, who played some slot receiver last year, on a seam route. “So close, but yet so far” couldn’t be symbolized any better.
So, what now?
“Going into this year I thought there was like three or four games they should win or that are winnable,” Seth says. “This one, Upper Iowa, Mary and Minot are all games they should have been in and could have won. So if they can win three or four games next year that’d be huge, but if they can’t win this year…” He trails off.
No one in attendance or on the field is particularly happy with constant losing. But they don’t see how the on-field standard can get much lower than it is now — which can interpreted positively, as some choose to do. There’s an element of American Dream here. Work hard, give it everything, stay positive. This is Square One, and whenever UMC does get to Square Two or Three or Four or Ten, it will feel pretty great to remember what the beginning looked like.
“It's always great to root for an underdog,” Seth says. “I don't think there's a bigger underdog in DII right now, honestly. Even if they don't win games — make them competitive, make them go down to the wire, keep them to a close score. And if they can do that, if they can get some upgrades to their facilities, that would be huge.”
“I think just as a whole they need to come together, offense, defense and special teams,” Clint says. “I think they have room to improve on all of them, all aspects.”
Adds Levi: “At least win a few games, that’d be cool. Gotta start somewhere.”
There’s precedent at Minnesota Crookston. The baseball team went 1-42 and 1-47 as recently as 2013 and 2014, but has posted four straight 20-win seasons, including a 28-21 finish last spring. The men’s basketball team has done roughly the same, going from a consistent seven or eight-win group into a team that nearly beat the nation’s top-ranked team in its season opener.
But this isn’t about what the Golden Eagles might be. It’s about what they are right now.
The team lingers on the field postgame, just as they did after the 81-point loss to Mankato two weeks prior. They’re joined by their family and friends in the stands, and this is when both sides can share their experience of the same event. They take photographs, make chatter, smile with each other. There’s an element of calm that makes it hard to tell a three-hour football game has just taken place.
Sally McRoberts, on her idea of a successful season: “If the team could just mesh and have that feeling of family.”
It’s not a revolutionary idea that family members will go to as many games as possible, or that other things matter along with wins and losses. But here, on this field and on this day, it’s a reminder that there’s more to the college football experience than college football itself. That the Golden Eagles are not only a winless team, but a team trying its hardest to get better every day, and not only that, but a group of people just doing what they love in front of people they love.
Winning a couple games, of course, wouldn’t take this away. But the maroon and gold and their faithful will take their time to be frustrated or disappointed, and then take the field a week later with time for life in-between. And while everything else can be stripped down to the bone, the pride required to keep coming back and representing is the foundation of this program.
Alicia Kropuenske, on her idea of a successful season: “Just getting out there week in and week out after a loss, coming back together, working together and still lining out on the field and playing their hearts out.”
A couple “WHOOs” ring out, and a few people start clapping. More join in as they turn their heads toward the source. Redshirt senior linebacker Trevor Long Jr., injured and wearing khakis and his number 40 jersey over a maroon long-sleeve, is kneeling, grinning and holding a small box that can only contain one thing.
Long and his new fiance slowly melt into each other’s arms more than they actively embrace. The Golden Eagles wait until Long actually puts the ring on her finger and they hug again to share their joy. Then, they mob the couple right on the 40-yard line.
If this is what 0-10 is, you could do worse, couldn’t you?
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