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McLeod West has played its last football game

McLeod West’s football dream came crashing down on Oct. 25 with a section semifinal playoff loss.

Eleven days later, the McLeod West district’s slim chances of survival beyond the current school year died quietly as a levy referendum failed — not unexpectedly — by a vote of 949 to 772.

The levy would have kept alive a chance to work out a deal in which the McLeod West district might have saved its elementary school.

The high school’s fate, though, was clear long before the football team started play this autumn, when part of the 86-year-old building was declared structurally unsound this summer and had to be shut down.

High school students have been bused to neighboring Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop for four hours of classes each day.

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"We all know this is the last time we're going to wear these uniforms," starting fullback Zak Neubarth, a junior, told Rick Reilly. "Right now, football is about the only thing keeping this school going."

Yes, I said Rick Reilly. The team’s difficult and unusual situation got the attention of the former Sports Illustrated columnist in a piece he did for espn.com and ESPN The Magazine. CBS Evening News picked up on the story, too.

And what a story!

As the facilities crumbled, enrollment dropped by half. The football program, which last year had 35 players, was down to 19. And they play

11-man football.

Coach Bill Neubarth, Zak’s dad, had to put coaches and former players on the field in order to scrimmage.

Yet the Falcons had an amazing season, knocking off then-No. 2-ranked Wabasso the second week of the season and ending the season 6-2, losing only to powerful New Ulm Cathedral and another 6-2 team, Cedar Mountain/Comfrey.

(Cedar Mountain used a no-huddle offense, wearing out McLeod West and winning 18-14.)

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Then in the second round of the Section Two, Class A playoffs, the No. 4-seeded Falcons drew top seed New Ulm Cathedral, the No. 1-ranked team in the state in Class A and a program with 62 players out for football.

Cathedral won 30-14, and McLeod West’s uniforms were put away forever.

Goodhue was its nemesis

This is a program that has been strong.

In 2005, it lost in the first round of the Section 4A playoffs to Goodhue, which went on to reach the Prep Bowl.

The following year it was

8-1 in the regular season, but was thumped 32-14 by Goodhue in the section semifinals as the Wildcats went to state for what would be the fourth of five straight years.

So the towns of Stewart and Brownton, which had their separate high schools before 1992’s consolidation, now face the sad chore of bargaining with a nearby district for further consolidation. That process might fail, since it would require approval from voters who have long been divided over issues.

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If so, the county will need to draw some lines and send McLeod West’s students to as many as four different districts.

Recent Minnesota history has seen dozens of consolidations of small school districts; there are currently 340 districts, 95 fewer than in 1985.

But there have been only two dissolutions: Verdi in 1980 and Mentor in 2000.

Craig Swalboski is sports editor for the Post-Bulletin. He can be contacted at swalbo@postbulletin.com.

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