Finally. After five years of losses under the Friday night lights, the Staples-Motley High School football team broke a 39-game losing streak — one of the longest in the state.

"It was a little surreal," said head coach Travis VanOverbeke. "I don't even know that it's set in for myself or a lot of the players."

But finally, a team that worked hard, stuck together and always believed beat the Frazee Hornets 24-14 and finally got "the monkey off its back," he said.

"We left the scoreboard on until the groundskeeper shut it down on Monday morning," said Mike Schmidt, principal and former athletic director. "We just let it go all weekend. We figured we had saved enough electricity all those years turning it off 30 seconds after every game was over that that we had some money in the bank."

In a combined community of 4,000 that's about 20 miles west of Brainerd, the Cardinals' big win became the talk of both towns, he said.

"There was plenty of relief," VanOverbeke said. "You could hear the entire town sigh all at one moment."

Listen to the radio call of the game's final seconds here.

VanOverbeke became head coach last year, when the team already had racked up more than 30 losses. "I knew we had fallen on dark times," he said.

Some football teams have seen their rosters decline over the years, Schmidt said. But in a school district that stretches over 700 sparsely populated miles, Staples-Motley faced additional obstacles, he said.

It's tough to convince "a 16- year-old or 17-year-old-boy that riding on a bus for nine hours to go play a football game or play someone who is two classes bigger than you" is a good idea, Schmidt said. "Some schools come on three buses."

At a high school with a senior class of 85 to 100 students, the ninth- to 12th-grade football roster has 33 players, compared with Pequot Lakes with 64 players. In the Twin Cities, schools sport a 60- to 80- student roster, he said.

In Staples-Motley, the varsity team has just 16 players. That means "they're playing both sides of the ball," VanOverbeke said. "They're playing on offense and they're playing on defense. There are guys that won't come off the field at all during the game. It's tough, but quite impressive."

VanOverbeke and Schmidt refer to last year as a "rebuilding season."

It was still a "winless season, just like the previous two or three," VanOverbeke said. But at least a couple of games were close. "We were driving but we fell short," he said. "And there were other games where the score was a little larger, but our guys never gave up."

It was about the moral victories, he said.

"At the end of the day, I'm not really placing wins and losses in the balance of success," VanOverbeke said. "It's more about creating some good kids, a culture, good character."

So VanOverbeke and his team found a way to keep the "guys hungry" and gave them a purpose to come to the field every day. "We made it fun," he said. "We're trying to teach these guys the game of football along with the game of life."

And rather than hang their heads over one of the longest losing streaks in the state, Schmidt said the team owned it. "We were the proudest 0-and-39 team you ever met."

On Friday night, their faith in one another and hard work paid off.

Down 6-0, junior Matt Miller put the team on the scoreboard with a 60-yard run to open the second half of the game and returned an interception 80 yards for a touchdown with 4½ minutes left.

The feeling of victory was close, but "we had to take some timeouts to get our composure," VanOverbeke said. "They were excited. A little too eager to celebrate. I've seen some scores change in a very short time period. I just wanted to make sure were going to be disciplined all the way to the end."

With 7 seconds to go, the Cardinals quarterback took to his knee and the clock counted down.

Announcing for the home game, Schmidt could hardly contain himself. He had spent most of the fourth quarter texting updates to people who couldn't make the game. "My hands were shaking," he said.

And then he counted down the last 7 seconds. "I yelled too loud in the mike and ended up tripping the amplifier and it cut out. But at that point no one was listening to me anyway."

On the field, junior captain Hunter Berggren turned to senior captain John Lund and said: "We finally did it."

The fans stormed the field. Local headlines turned the team into heroes. "This is what the boys worked hard for," Schmidt said. "Everything they were instructed to believe in is for real. This is our new normal."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788