It seems unfathomable, really. They are two rival schools in the same school district, a smidge under 3 miles apart. Yet Armstrong and Cooper have not played a regularly scheduled football game against each other since 2004.
That dubious streak will end Thursday, when Armstrong plays at Cooper at 7 p.m. Both teams are 2-0 and have serious postseason hopes. It’s the Battle of Robbinsdale (the school district, not the city) and fans of both teams are positively giddy.
“I think this game is huge,” said radio announcer Wally Langfellow, who will be calling the game on KYCR AM-1570. Langfellow is a 1979 graduate of long-since closed Robbinsdale High School and has lived in the district for most of his life. “It’s amazing to me that they haven’t played in that long. I know the kids are excited, the fans are excited. I’m excited.”
The teams played once since 2004, when Cooper defeated Armstrong in the first round of 2010 section playoffs. But playoff schedules are unpredictable. With the switch from conference to district scheduling, Thursday’s game is expected to be the first in a long annual series.
“I hope they play this game every year,” Langfellow said. “It builds interest and rivalry within the community. And it’s going to sell out, so the financial boost could be huge.”
For as long as anyone can remember, kids in the school district have played youth football together in the Armstrong/Cooper Youth Football Association (ACYFA) until being forced to split up when they entered high school. The chance to play against each other is a frequent topic of conversation.
“I played ACYFA starting in sixth grade,” said Armstrong receiver True Thompson, son of former University of Minnesota running back Darrell Thompson. “I played with a lot of guys on Cooper’s team and a lot of guys on our team. Every time we see each other, we talk about how much fun it would be to play.”
Whispers have long circulated that one team avoided the other for fear of looking bad. In truth, the reason for the hiatus is far less juicy: conference commitments.
Armstrong was in the old Classic Lake conference until 2010, then switched to the Northwest Suburban. In both cases, the Falcons were locked into conference scheduling agreements that restricted nonconference opportunities.
“Over the last few years, we really tried to schedule a game with them, but we could never get the nonconference week to match up,” Cooper athletic director John Oelfke said. “It would have taken their entire conference to switch its schedule just to make our one game work.”
That’s all in the past now. Classes don’t start until Tuesday, but the buzz has been palpable. Both schools sold tickets in advance, trying to avoid the expected crush at the ticket windows. New Robbinsdale Area Schools Superintendent Carlton Jenkins will make the pregame coin toss. Media requests to cover the game are far greater than available space in the press box.
“I’m actually kind of glad we’re not in school,” Thompson said. “It might be too big of a distraction.”
It has become such a big topic of conversation that Armstrong coach Jack Negen, who vigorously avoids talking to his team about wins, losses and opponents, is letting his team look forward.
“I’ve been trying to make sure the kids haven’t been looking ahead, but now that it’s here, we can talk about it,” Negen said. “I think it’s a fun thing for the kids and a fun thing for the community.”
Cooper running back LeVonte Taylor didn’t grow up playing football in the district but said it doesn’t matter. The game’s significance is too big to avoid.
“Ever since I’ve been at Cooper, all I’ve heard about is getting the chance to play Armstrong,” Taylor said. “I expect this to be one of those games you wait for. I’m very ready for this.”