The score wasn’t a misprint: 77-0.
The winning team on that Friday afternoon last September, Minnehaha Academy, wasn’t trying to run up the score. But after defeating St. Paul Academy by such a lopsided margin, Minnehaha athletic director Josh Thurow knew something needed to be done.
“It was obvious that their program suffered because of a lack of numbers,” Thurow said.
A merger between the two football programs was proposed. St. Paul Academy, which forfeited a playoff game last October because it lacked enough players, would join forces with Minnehaha Academy, which had experienced moderate football success but recently was struggling to stay competitive as participation numbers dwindled. A third program experiencing similar difficulties, Blake, was added to balance out the new district schedule.
The move made sense from an administrative perspective. All three are among the state’s elite prep schools and members of the same conference, the Independent Metro Athletic Conference (IMAC). Thus was born the SMB (SPA-Minnehaha-Blake) Wolfpack.
So far, the co-op has fostered a feeling of togetherness and developed a team mentality that is difficult to do at one school. Coach Collin Quinn admitted he no idea what to expect when the co-op was announced.
“We’re bringing together schools that have great traditions,” said Quinn, who had been the head coach at Minnehaha Academy. “Maybe not so much recently, but it goes back a long way. The parents have been very supportive and the kids bought in right away. They recognized that this was an opportunity.”
Quinn acknowledges that football’s reputation, battered by concussion and injury concerns, might have played a part in the declining participation numbers. But he believes opportunities that football provides are far greater than its drawbacks.
“Football is a place for young men to learn to be leaders and serve others,” Quinn said. “More than any other sport, it requires a selflessness and a willingness to lay down your priorities to work towards a goal.”
To the players, the initial trepidation to joining forces with a rival quickly gave way to relief.
“At SPA, every season we would be worried if we had enough guys and that’s all we would worry about,” senior running back Michael O’Shea said. “Now, we have, like, 70 guys and it’s nice to just worry about playing football.”
The melding of programs now behind them, the biggest hurdle for the Wolfpack now is establishing itself on the field.
“Playing at Blake, no one ever looked at us as being a very good team or a very physical team,” senior center/nose tackle Armaan Gori said. “This gives us a clean slate. It’s a chance to show that we’re not a team to be taken lightly. Even if we don’t win, we’re going to hit and you’re going to remember us the next day.”
The co-op played its first game Aug. 22, defeating St. Agnes 7-0 in a game called just before halftime because of storm concerns. In the past, many of the players would have celebrated such a victory. This year, however, the goals are much bigger.
“It was kind of disappointing,” fullback Grant Steinkopf said. “They called the game when we were two feet away from scoring. We were happy to win, but we wanted to play a whole game.”
Win or lose, the consensus is the merger has made football more enjoyable for everyone involved. That, Quinn said, is the primary goal.
“From the get-go, our goal has been to instill a family atmosphere,” he said. “We’re building excitement now.”
Sam Gittleman, a senior linebacker from Blake, said, “I’ve always had fun playing football. But this year is the most fun I’ve ever had.”