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Mercy rule: Do struggling high school football programs need changes in their schedules?

Several area prep football programs continue to struggle. Could scheduling changes be a solution?

Worthington Trojans football player Abaqotte Opiew (5) leaps up to snatch the football from St. Peter receiver Joshua Bosacker (36) in the Trojans 2022 Homecoming game.
Worthington Trojans football player Abaqotte Opiew (5) leaps up to snatch the football from St. Peter receiver Joshua Bosacker (36) in the Trojans 2022 Homecoming game.
Tim Middagh / The Globe
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Windom Area High School football coach Adam Farag was polled on Monday, and the question was whether he might like to play the Worthington Trojans in a varsity football game anytime soon.

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“If possible,” he said.

But is it possible?

Worthington-Windom football games used to be a regular occurrence when the Southwest Conference was in effect. But, these days, many old rivalries like Trojans-Eagles games have been legislated out of existence. Worthington, for instance, hasn’t had a regular season contest scheduled with either Windom Area or Jackson County Central since at least 2019.

But the Trojans renew their rivalry with the Marshall Tigers every year, even though the teams are presently located in different districts. The results have been almost always one-sided.

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Last Friday, the Trojans were beaten at Marshall by a 44-0 score in a game where the visiting team accounted for a total of minus-2 offensive yards unofficially. Marshall has beaten Worthington from 2015 through 2021 by scores of 62-0, 64-0, 56-0, 62-6, 56-12, 22-6 and 42-6.

Both Worthington and Windom Area, who have enjoyed many solid football seasons when today’s players had fathers suiting up for their high schools, have struggled consistently over the past decade and longer. Both teams are 0-4 in 2022 and have yet to play a truly competitive football game.

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True, there are winnable games ahead. But for the Trojans and the Eagles -- and for other struggling football programs, too -- doesn’t it make sense for schedule-makers to give tormented programs a few more winnable games in the regular season?

“We have teams that we can be competitive with, with Worthington and St. James Area just right down the road,” said Windom Area athletic director Jacob Johnson. “It’s really hard when you’re trying to build a program and trying to turn a program around, that we can’t play teams that we would be more competitive with.”

District, not conference, football is the landscape today. Worthington is a member of the South Central White district along with Waseca, New Ulm, Fairmont and Luverne. The South Central Silver district consists of Windom Area, Jackson County Central, Pipestone Area, Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial and Redwood Valley. The South Central White district contains Marshall, Jordan, Tri-City United, Belle Plaine and St. Peter. The South Central Blue has Norwood-Young America, Blue Earth Area, Maple River, LeSueur-Henderson and Sibley East.

It’s simpler, of course, to match district teams with teams in their own district for the majority of the regular season. But teams have eight regular season games, so how hard is it to match Windom Area, for instance, with Worthington once in a while early in the season instead of with Jordan, which the Trojans have lost to every year (barring the Covid year of 2020) since 2017?

IT’S NOT ALL BAD

And those Worthington-Marshall games? Surely, many of the fans who traveled to Marshall last Friday may have wished they’d have just stayed home.

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But the coaching staff, and the players themselves, might have a different point of view.

“I don’t want to get rid of Marshall,” said veteran Trojans head coach Geno Lais. “I like the challenge of playing better teams. I’m a big fan of the old Southwest Conference. But when you get good teams, that’s just the way it is.”

Lais has long been a believer that wins and losses never tell the full story about what a high school football team learns. A big loss, he said, “doesn’t always define the success, or the fun, that you can have.”

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What does define success? Learning to work for common goals with people your own age, learning to count on your teammates, friendships, learning how to deal with adversity, and basic life lessons that we all must learn as we move forward.

“Struggling together, then coming back to work” is a valuable life lesson, Lais said Monday morning. The idea that you can be clobbered in a game -- and sometimes clobbered several weeks in a row -- then keep coming back to practice with an optimistic attitude can give players a sense of belonging that, Lais pointed out, “some kids don’t get a lot of.”

Lais is actually a big fan of the old Southwest Conference. He likes all the old rivalries and said that “it would be nice to play Windom, because I remember playing them back in the Jack Kelly (former Windom coach) days.”

And despite the fact that he also enjoys the challenge of playing better teams, Lais acknowledges the issues that face all football programs trying to find a way out of year-in, year-out mediocrity. Some would-be recruits don’t want to face the losing.

Times change, eras change, sports undergo metamorphosis.

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“I think, honestly, the biggest struggle with us, we have much more focus with other sports, because in other sports we’ve had more success in. So football gets on the back burner,” said Farag, himself a former Windom prep gridder who graduated in 2016 (the last season the Eagles won a playoff game).

Basketball, baseball and hockey get more attention from Windom Area high school boys, said Farag. But: “Once we get some success again, then we’ll have kids become more interested in playing football.”

Johnson said some Eagles dropped out of the football program before the 2022 season began, but the ones who started it have continued to work at it. Lais said he’s retained almost all of his team since the start of this year’s regular season, too.

But Johnson acknowledged that more winnable games would help matters.

“I think the goal is to have competitive balance to give the kids the best experience,” he said.

DO THE BEST YOU CAN

It’s gotta be tough for coaches, too, to look a season in the face and expect to sustain more than your share of frustrating setbacks.

“I don’t look at it that way,” said Lais. “I look at it as a challenge. I want the kids to have the best experiences they can have.”

Yes, Lais admitted that sometimes he and his assistants go home disappointed. But then they look at the game film and think about the next game coming up, and they feel excited again.

This week is a case in point. This Friday night the Trojans will play another old Southwest Conference rival, Luverne, in Luverne. The Cardinals are 2-2 and coming off a 42-32 loss to New Ulm (another team the Trojans believe they can beat) and the Trojans are optimistic.

“We’re pretty excited about it. We know Luverne. We’ve always had some competitive games against them. They’re always a well-coached team. Getting a win against them would be a nice win, because they’re a rival and it would make our kids feel good about themselves.”

Maybe the fans have given up, or maybe not. But it looks as if the Trojans, themselves -- at least for now -- still believe.

Doug Wolter joined the Worthington Globe in December of 1983 as a sports reporter. He later became sports editor, and then news editor and managing editor. In 2006 he moved to Mankato with his wife, Sandy, and served as an editor at the Mankato Free Press. In 2013 he and Sandy returned to Worthington to take up the job of sports editor at The Globe, and they have been in Worthington since.

Doug can be reached at dwolter@dglobe.com.
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