‘We’ve gone to the battle; we’ve done our best’

'We've gone to the battle; we've done our best'
Sundays traditionally are a day of rest here in God's country.

But for the Vermillion Tanagers, Sunday afternoon, Oct. 28, was reserved for one more light practice on the football field near Vermillion High School.

On Monday night, Vermillion was scheduled to face the Harrisburg Tigers in quarter final state football playoff action.

Everyone involved had good reason to be optimistic, even though Harrisburg had soundly defeated the Tanagers during the regular season.

Anyone with any doubts about Vermillion's chances only had to review what happened earlier in October.

On Oct. 5, Vermillion traveled to Lennox and watched as the Orioles eventually took control of the tempo of the game to win.

The Tanagers were disappointed, but not discouraged. On Tuesday, Oct. 23, Vermillion returned to Lennox to face the Orioles in the first round of football playoffs.

The Tanagers had gotten to know the Orioles' strengths and weaknesses during their Oct. 5 game. They put that experience to use, keying on the team's weaknesses while making the most of the Tanager's strengths to defeat Lennox.

That's what brought coach Gary Culver and his team out to Vermillion High School's football field late Sunday afternoon, Oct. 28.

Culver and the other assistant coaches used the time to provide their players with the knowledge they would need to have a chance to defeat the Tigers.

Harrisburg, like Lennox, had also proven to be a tough foe during the regular season, defeating the Tanagers 28-6 in the DakotaDome on Oct. 12.

Sunday evening, as players cast long shadows on the practice field thanks to the setting sun, hope was strong that the Tanagers would be able to strike back at the Tigers as they had with Lennox.

A detectable wave of optimism had swept over the players, the coaches and their fans as Sunday's practice ended and everyone gathered in the high school commons. Tables were filled with casseroles, salads and desserts, prepared earlier that day by the players' parents.

They dug in, heaping their plates full, a hungry band of brothers enjoying the fellowship of a meal together.

That's not to say that players, coaches and parents simply were ignoring the finality of all that was happening.

Playoffs mean you have to win to keep playing. One loss, and the Tanagers' season ends. Everyone knew that Sunday's practice could very well be the final practice of the football squad this year.

"The great thing about football playoffs is the champion is decided on the field, but the downside is only one team gets to end their season on a winning note, and that's the champion," Culver said Sunday evening. "The finality of losing is an emotional thing to go through. We're hoping we will extend our playoff venture another week."

There have been seasons – namely the last two – where the Tanagers had already put away their gear for good by now. To still be playing in Monday's quarter finals, following a schedule that pitted Vermillion against several of the toughest teams in 11A football, including Dell Rapids and West Central, is a testament to the Tanager team's grit and determination.

"You have that opportunity to at least do that (compete in the quarter finals), that's the great thing, to compete and to find out that maybe we are the best. We don't know. We've been telling our guys that we've had some close games, but we can compete with anybody," the coach said. "We're still here, we're still alive, and where else would you rather be on a Monday night? I think it's that opportunity to be in that particular setting at that particular time. Win or lose, we've gone to the battle, and we've done our best."

A perfect example of the Tanagers' fighting spirit is the two duals it experienced on the gridiron this fall against Lennox.

Judging by the score, one would believe that the Orioles defeated Vermillion soundly in regular season play on Oct. 5. While beaten 21-7, the Tanagers also realized following that match-up that Lennox was a team that could be defeated.

Vermillion was better prepared for Lennox for the first round of high school playoff action on Oct. 23. In what will go down as the most thrilling game of the season, the Tanagers earned a 13-10 overtime victory over the Orioles.

It was at that point, Culver said, that his team began preparing for what it hoped would be a similar victory over Harrisburg.

"We started as coaches breaking down film," he said. "And on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, we put all of our offensive and defensive game plans on the field."

Some fine-tuning was made to the Tanager defensive line during practice Friday. "So, we've gone through a four-day process, brushing up things on both the offense and defense to get ready both physically and mentally for the game," the coach said.

A couple of the Tanager losses during the regular season – against the finest teams in 11A football – easily could have been victories, Culver said. Vermillion lost to the Dell Rapids Quarriers in overtime. They nearly found themselves facing a similar situation against West Central earlier this month. But at the end of the game, the Trojans were able to score, securing a win.

"Two or three plays are really separating us from being the winner instead of the loser in those contests," Culver said, "but in the same light, that's what separates good teams from great teams.

"Great teams will come back on the road, down 7-0, and pull out a victory," he said, "and our guys did that against Lennox."

Culver knows that young people in this day and age are tempted to add excitement to their lives by using alcohol or drugs.

"After the Lennox win, I told the players, 'Where can you get an emotional high like you had after that overtime win? You can't match that with any drug. That's what it is all about – the emotional highs and lows that you feel during the season, I think, make you a stronger person. It transforms into a smaller version of life, knowing that the time you put in practicing, lifting weights, conditioning, pays off dividends."

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