There was little squabbling from the Southland football players about their move.
The Rebels were dropping down a level, from Class A to Nine-Man football.
“Yes, it was very smart for us to make that change,” Southland star senior linebacker Carter Schmitz said. “We found ourselves catching injuries during the season, and then it was hard to play teams with 45-plus guys on their (roster).”
Like so many coaches, 16th-year Southland head man Shawn Kennedy calls football a “numbers game.” And the Rebels, with 30-or-so football players on their roster in recent years, grades 9-12, simply didn’t have the numbers to continue to compete with such teams as Blooming Prairie, Rushford-Peterson and Goodhue.
Those aren’t just good teams by southeastern Minnesota standards. They are annually among the state’s best. And that’s naming just a few of those kinds of programs.
“We didn’t want to leave our (league),” Kennedy said. “But you can’t compete with 27 kids when three or four of the teams you’re going against are ranked in the top 10 in the state.”
The Rebels finished a combined 12-25 the last three years, including allowing Blooming Prairie 56 and 54 points in getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs in 2017 and ’18.
Enough, the Rebels determined, was enough.
So off they went, this year opting to play Nine-Man football. For Kennedy, it was like going back in time.
“I hadn’t coached Nine-Man football since 1999,” Kennedy said.
That was at Northwestern High School, near Aberdeen, S.D. Kennedy was an assistant coach there one year and a volunteer the next. It’s been 11-man football for him ever since.
“It has been a transition,” Kennedy said. “The width of the field in Nine-Man is less (40 yards, compared to 11-man’s 53). There are certain kinds of plays that I used to like to call that I can’t anymore (because of the width of the field). And on the defensive side, you’ve got two less guys trying to cover receivers. Until you get in a rhythm in setting up plays, it’s different.”
ANOTHER STELLAR LEAGUE
What hasn’t been any different is the reputation of the section that the Rebels have landed in. Southland has gone from power-packed Section 1A, to power-packed District 9-South for Nine-Man.
The latter has been home to the last six state champions. Grand Meadow won it all from 2013-2016, then Spring Grove went unbeaten in successive seasons en route to winning back-to-back state titles.
Things are no different this season. Four District 9-South teams have cracked the state poll’s top 10 this season, including LeRoy-Ostrander which currently stands at No. 2.
But there is one major difference for Southland. It’s that this year, for the first time in ages, it is one of those top-10 ranked teams. The Rebels come in at No. 8 this week.
Yes, Southland football — whose only loss this season has been 26-21 to LeRoy-Ostrander — has been given a new lease on life.
“We went from one of the best conferences in 11-man football, to (District 9-South), where we are playing so many great teams,” Schmitz said. “We knew what we were getting into. But now it is so rewarding to see all of our hard work paying off.”
With all of the injures that Southland has incurred the last few weeks, there is some doubt that it can keep building on its 5-1 record. The Rebels were without four starters through much of last week’s 12-0 win over Lanesboro. That included kicker-extraordinaire/lineman Ethan Forthun who is out for the year after having surgery last week on bone spurs in his ankle.
The Rebels figure to get one and maybe all three of their other injured players back before the end of the season
If they can return to relative health, they know that they have a shot against anybody in the state. History says as much, with District 9-South having produced the last six Nine-Man state champions.
“I tell our kids to always be humble and to respect all of our opponents,” Kennedy said. “But we we also know that whoever comes out of our section has a chance to win it all.”
These are new times that the Rebels are living in. Nobody was referring to Southland as a state contender in recent years. But they are now.