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Scott M

Stephen-Argyle

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Something "right" with sports:

STEPHEN, MINN. — The Stephen-Argyle football team was running sprints, 100 yards at a crack, during practice last week. The players had completed one down-and-back circuit when coach Mark Kroulik hollered in a joyful voice, "It's a beautiful day!"

The hard-breathing players, some with hands on knees, responded in unison, "Beautiful day!"

"Yes, it is," said the coach before blowing his whistle and sending the boys on another length-of-the-field conditioning journey.

Actually, it was going to be a beautiful day ... once the sun came up.

The sprints took place at 6:15 a.m., under the lights as the world waited for sunrise. The team was on the field at 5:45 and worked out until 7:45. The players then showered, had breakfast and were ready for school to begin at 8:30.

It was just another day for the most extraordinary football team in America.

The Stephen-Argyle Storm:

• Plays Nine-man football.

• Has won the past four Nine-man championships, a state-record title run.

• Owns a 58-game winning streak and is closing in on the state record of 60 games without a loss.

• Follows a playbook that contains no plays.

• Has a three-year starting lineman with a prosthetic leg.

• Has been practicing under the early-morning lights since the 1960s.

Back then, many football players had farm chores after school. So practice was moved to the morning and has stayed that way ever since, even though farming is no longer the reason. At Stephen-Argyle, that's just the way it is.

"We like having practice in the morning," said 6-1, 235-pound senior guard Kolby Gruhot, who lost his left leg below the knee in a farm accident when he was 3 years old. "Then we have lots of time after school for homework or whatever's going on."

That also means early bedtimes, with players and coaches hitting the sack as soon as 9 p.m. Student manager Johnny Cleem is usually the first one awake, rising as early as 3:15 a.m. He watches ESPN's "SportsCenter" ("The guys always ask me what happened in sports last night") before arriving at school and turning on the field lights between 4:45 and 5 a.m.

• • •

Stephen (population 708) and Argyle (656) are nine miles apart on Hwy. 75 in far northwestern Minnesota. From here -- where wheat, sugar beets and football are king, the nearest Big Mac is 45 miles away and the earth is flatter than a cheap clarinet -- it's one-third of the distance to drive to Winnipeg, Manitoba (120 miles) than Minneapolis (360).

But the November destination for everybody in these two villages is Minneapolis, the Metrodome and the Prep Bowl.

Before the schools in Argyle and Stephen merged in 1996, Argyle won Nine-man titles in 1981 and 1986 and Stephen was the champ in 1992. Stephen-Argyle has been to the state playoffs every year since 1996, winning its first post-merger championship in 1999.

If the Storm wins another title this season, it will match Mahnomen's record of six overall championships. Eden Prairie, Totino-Grace and Burnsville also own five titles.

Stephen-Argyle's last loss came in the 2002 state semifinals, when Nicollet thumped the Storm 38-16 at the Metrodome. The Minnesota record for consecutive football games without a defeat is 60; Minneapolis Washburn went 58-0-2 between 1966 and 1972.

If Stephen-Argyle keeps winning, it will tie that record on Oct. 5 against Kittson County Central and break it in the Oct. 16 regular-season finale against Northern Freeze at Newfolden.

But the record is not a big topic of conversation here, at least on the football team. "We don't talk about the streak," Kroulik said. "We're on a 4-0 streak this year. [The record is] an elephant, and it's not a bad elephant. But it's going to end and you don't want that elephant falling on high school kids."

As senior quarterback Kip Thorstenson said: "This team is a family. It's not so much about the wins, but about being out there together."

How big is the football family? The high school enrollment of 102 includes 68 boys, and 50 of them play football.

• • •

The Stephen-Argyle playbook is not a playbook at all. It is 16 pages and a staple, filled with goals, rules, expectations, guidelines and quotes from a couple of philosophers:

• "Football is like life ... it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority."

• "First say to yourself what you would be. Then do what you have to do."

The first quote is from Vince Lombardi. The second -- printed on the cover of the playbook -- is from the Greek philosopher Epictetus, who certainly knew more about motivation than he did about Nine-man football.

Football parents receive a similar playbook. But nobody -- players, coaches, parents -- ever sees a play diagrammed on paper. The Storm has only eight basic running plays and a couple of pass plays in their Wing-T offense. They are mastered through on-field repetition instead of book learning.

"We started running this offense in 1984," said Kroulik, who was then an assistant at Argyle. "Most of the kids from that 1984 team could still run the plays."

Almost all the top football players also play basketball. Assistant football coaches Bryce Lingen and Jamie Lunsetter are the head coaches for boys' and girls' basketball. The other sports offered at Stephen-Argyle are volleyball, track and golf.

Most of the football players lift weights three days a week in the summer. And if they don't show up in the weight room, everybody knows about it. One of the gathering spots for the locals is the Cenex gas station in Argyle.

"The farmers sit around and talk football," said senior running back Kyle Gratzek. "If you aren't in the weight room, people talk about it."

• • •

The Storm has won four games this season by scores of 46-19, 41-14, 41-7 and 58-14. On Friday they will play host to Clearbrook-Gonvick (coached by Kroulik's son, Casey). Stephen-Argyle's biggest rival in the Top of the State Conference is Kittson County Central. They will meet a week from Friday; the Storm will go for No. 60 in the streak in that game if it wins this week.

Kittson County Central's Terry Ogorek is in his 28th year of coaching, so he knows all about Stephen-Argyle.

"We've got a file on them that's two, three times as thick as on any other team," Ogorek said. "We prepare harder for them than anybody. They're the program that everybody looks up to. If you want to model yourself after anybody, model yourself after the best."

And wake up early.

John Millea

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Go nine man football.

The NY Times had a story about a week ago:

September 12, 2007

High School Football Teams Reflect Changes in Rural Life

By JOE SPRING

ARGYLE, Minn. — The northwestern Minnesota towns of Stephen and Argyle, populations 708 and 656 respectively, are separated by nine flat miles of soybean and wheat. The highest point between them is the mounded dirt that elevates the railroad tracks connecting their grain elevators. Since consolidating their schools in 1996, they have dominated nine-man football, never missing a state semifinal.

With a state-record winning streak and four consecutive nine-man state championships, the Stephen/Argyle Central Storm has the characteristics of a high school football powerhouse. Carrying the weight of two small, declining farming towns on its shoulders, the team also manifests much larger challenges confronting towns like these throughout the Midwest.

The impact of changing demographics and farming technology in this region is apparent in the student body and, on Friday nights, on the football field.

Consolidation has brought Stephen and Argyle football glory, but the towns are shrinking and growing older. The average age in Marshall County, home to Stephen and Argyle, is 40, 10 years older than the state average. Almost a fifth of the population exceeds the age of 65, a 50 percent jump above the state average.

“It’s young people moving off the prairie and into the city,” said Tom Gillaspy, the state’s demographer.

The change is seen most starkly in the school populations. The Stephen/Argyle student body for 7th through 12th grade was 50 percent larger a decade ago, falling to about 180 from 270. It is no different in other rural towns in Minnesota.

“Boy, there’s just so many school districts with multiple names,” Gillaspy said. “You get to the point where you start adding three names, or four names, and then they become initials, or a region, like Norman County West, and eventually it will just be Norman County.”

One of Stephen/Argyle’s biggest rivals is Kittson County Central, composed of Lancaster and Kittson Central, which is a combination of the towns of Hallock, Kennedy, Humboldt and St. Vincent.

In 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner said the American frontier was closed. But, as the Great Plains Restoration Council pointed out, west of the Mississippi River, the number of counties with six people or fewer per square mile has increased, from 388 in 1980, to 397 in 1990, to 402 in 2000.

“Many places are turning back to frontier,” Gillaspy said.

Just after dawn in Argyle one day in August, with the lights still on and the northern Minnesota fog hanging over the practice field and the wheat stubble that spreads beyond it for miles, offensive lineman Kolby Gruhot crouched his 6-foot-1, 230-pound frame into a three-point stance. The fingertips of his calloused right hand dug into wet grass. His right calf extended to a prepped foot ready to push off, and where his left calf would be, a metal rod picked up dew before disappearing into Gruhot’s black cleat. Having lost part of his left leg in a lawn mower accident when he was 3, Gruhot wears a prosthesis below his knee.

After the cadence, he sprung up, blocked a defensive end and barreled ahead. The rod revealed itself only after his sprint, on his way back to the huddle, in a slightly leaned gait that looked something like a strut.

When Gruhot opens holes on the line for the senior running back Kyle Gratzek, he leaves him with something like frontier to run through: up to 99 yards of short grass and only five men to the goal.

Nine-man football is the province of small towns in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. “It’s simple,” said Nic Thompson, the Storm’s defensive back coach. “Nine-man just doesn’t have tackles.”

In Minnesota, it began in the mid-1960s after teams evolved from six- and eight-man football. Now, with 81 teams, it represents the state’s largest class. To qualify, high schools need to have fewer than 165 students. Stephen/Argyle Central has 111, 68 of whom are boys.

“Good for football,” Coach Mark Kroulik said. “Tough for finding a prom date.”

Three quarters of those boys play football. “That is why they’re winning: They’re not missing an athlete,” the former coach Warren Keller said. “And even if you don’t play, you’re still a part of the team.”

Gruhot embodies the power football that defines the school’s success on the field and the hard work that defines its agricultural traditions off it. The Storm pounds the ball. In last year’s state championship victory over Wheaton, the team threw one pass and ran the ball 61 times for 380 yards.

And so during a recent morning practice, with temperatures in the mid-60s, the players finished sprints and sit-ups and started blocking drills.

“We’d start an after-school practice with 30 and end up with 13,” said Al Larson, who coached Argyle from 1965 to 1977, when many of the students had farming chores in the afternoons and evenings. “Their dads would drive up in a pickup and wave, and they’d be gone.

“I sat the kids down and said, ‘Figure out when we can practice,’ ” he said. “They said, ‘In the morning.’ ”

When school is in session, the players hit the field before 6 a.m., even though only a third of them still work on farms. The coaches like the morning practices, they say, because the players are not thinking about girls yet. The parents like them because their kids go to bed early.

“A couple of guys have hit deer,” Kroulik said. “But other than that they work out really well.”

On Aug. 21, Gruhot left the practice field at 11:30 a.m., then showered, grabbed a sandwich and drove a combine until 10 p.m. “I’m helping out my neighbor,” he said.

On the few thousand acres where his family farms wheat, sugar beets, soybeans and corn, he drives a combine, a tractor, a plow and a mower.

“You get pretty tired after practice,” Gruhot said. “And we don’t have autosteer in our combines, but one of our tractors has a G.P.S. with autosteer. That’s pretty nice after practice because you can just sit there, hit a button and listen to the radio.”

Technology has changed the family farm. Fertilizers provide nutrients to allow plants to grow bigger and more quickly. Genetically altered crops allow spraying that kills everything but the plants.

The families that run farms have become smaller because less manual labor is needed to bring in the crops. There are fewer families around since the farms have increased in size and decreased in number. In the last 30-plus years, the number of farms in Minnesota has decreased to 80,000 from almost 100,000.

“When this county was opened up in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they homesteaded 160 acres,” said Howard Person, the county extension educator. “Now if you are just going to raise crops, you better own at least 2,000 acres.”

Though consolidation is most visible in the schools, it has affected every aspect of rural life. “It’s the same thing that’s happening with everybody that supplies to farms, from machinery dealers to fertilizer dealers,” Person said. “They become regionally owned.”

The stresses of decline are alleviated by football championships. [stephen/Argyle is 2-0 this season, extending its winning streak to 56 games on Sept. 7 with a 41-14 victory over Red Lake County Central.]

“Parents call and want to know when the state playoffs are, because they are planning their fall,” Kroulik said. “And I say, well, we got to win first.”

At the end of practice, Kroulik called the team together. He closed with a statement that suggested that the tradition of winning here has less to do with the fame of Friday night lights than the hard work of weekday morning lights.

“Good job today, but we still have a lot of stuff we need to clean up and do,” Kroulik said. “We’ll see you bright and early tomorrow morning.”

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Yep, they are a heck of a team. They took out my hometown team last year in the semis that had a couple of Div II palyers on it.

I think they hardly broke a sweat in handing them their bacon.

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Gissert are you from Lanesboro?

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No - Underwood.

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thanks for the insight into a football team that makes you feel good about football again. they are not on ESPN or travel to california to play. They a have been an inspiration to many i think. It is great that this kind of sucess happens so far from the cities and in a small town atmosphere. We have heard about this team for years and no one has ever written anything like this in a paper (that ive seen) Thanks again.

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Noticed they finally got knocked off a few weeks ago at the Section final. On Halloween Friday, Kittson County Central avenged an earlier loss by a 7-0 final. S-A had 76 consecutive wins...what a streak. KCC lost in the semifinals, so a new section will be the state champion.

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