At 0.5 people per square mile, Harding County, South Dakota is one of the least populated places in the nation. The county’s only high school, located in Buffalo, is small by even small-town standards, with 85 students in grades 9-12. However, few schools can match its gridiron success. Nicknamed after the primary industry in the region, “The Ranchers” football team has experienced only one losing season in its 44-year history.
Harding County’s teenage boys suit up every Friday night and dominate 9-man football.
Nine-man football is a small-town sport. Unique to three upper Great Plains states (South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota), it was designed for rural high schools, where mounting a standard 11-man team simply isn’t feasible.
The first three games of the 2010 season are already in the books, all three ending early due to the 50-point mercy rule (any time after halftime, a 50-point lead wins the game). The Ranchers have so far outscored their opponents 172 to 14.
The key to 9-man football, according to Ranchers head coach, Jay Wammen, is speed. “With two less defensive linemen, we have more space to work with. Like most 9-man teams, our kids play both offense and defense, so there is a demand for physicality and the ability to be on the field giving it their all from the first whistle to the last.”
The Ranchers play on what many regard as the worst football field in South Dakota. “We tried raising grass on the field last year,” laments assistant coach and school principal Josh Page. “We laid some sod, but it died out.” The field is too muddy to use when it rains, and when it’s dry, clouds of thick dust blow across from the adjacent rodeo grounds. It’s not unusual for Friday night Ranchers games, originally scheduled for their home field, to be forced to move to their opponent’s school, due to unsuitable playing conditions. Visiting teams consider this good news -- over the years players have come to dread the invasive cockleburs populating the Harding County High School football field.
Football is a collision sport, and wrestling cattle on the ranch prepares these young men for confronting 250-pound opponents. Getting up at sunrise to feed livestock trains them to be alert, disciplined, and ready to execute. Says Wally Stephens, sports editor of The Nation’s Center News (circulation 1200) about the Ranchers’ style of play, “Our boys play hardnosed, power football. They grind the ball out and they hit hard.”
Located in the farthest northwest corner of South Dakota, Harding County is known to paleontologists as the T-rex capital of the world -- more T-rex fossils have been found here than in any other place on earth. It has a population of 1,353 people, spread out over 2,678 square miles. The region boasts the nation’s coldest winters, punctuated by fierce blizzards that are capable, even today, of immobilizing residents for weeks at a time. When its High School team members are not playing football or going to school, most are working on the family ranch: branding calves, wrestling steers, herding sheep, or moving hay. Many are the third or fourth generation on the land. When they start practice in August, the players are in shape and ready to work hard. Sure, they have a little swagger, notes Coach Wammen, but it’s been earned by their success.
Whether they win or lose, away games constitute a long ride home over vast stretches of two-lane roads. The conference has nine teams and encompasses an impressive 38,000 square miles, with the farthest regular season game 213 miles away. Yet even with an average round trip of over 250 miles, Harding County fans often outnumber those of the opposing team. “The whole county comes,” according to Nora Boyer, the erudite 78-year-old volunteer curator at the Buffalo Historical Museum. “It gets pretty nippy around November and some people watch the game from their vehicles, but I say, if you sit in your pickup truck, you can’t holler.” Many of the players have fathers and grandfathers in the crowd who, when they were teenagers, played for Harding County High School.
High school senior Jace Jenson is a standout wide receiver and line backer whose ranch is 40 miles from the high school. Jenson attended hometown games as a grade school student, playing rough-and-tumble football in the field behind the goalposts. “I remember being a little kid and goofing around with the same guys that I play with today.” One of those guys is current teammate and fellow senior Austin Brown who has been the Ranchers’ quarterback and safety since he was a freshman. Brown lives on a ranch that belonged to his grandfather, 25 miles north of the high school in Buffalo. He describes Harding County football as “tradition," saying, "I have had a football in my hands ever since I can remember.”
The 6’5” quarterback was one of only three South Dakota football players who were recognized in the renowned Tom Lemming’s Prep Football Report Summer 2010. The report calls Brown "…One of the biggest sleepers in the country . . . he plays way out in western South Dakota so most college coaches are unaware of the potential blue chipper.”
Both Brown's and Jenson’s fathers played for the Ranchers in the early 1980s. Jenson says, “My dad played Harding County football when he was in high school. But,” he adds with a sly grin, “I don’t know if he was any good. You could ask him . . . but he’s out moving hay.” The fathers of both the Ranchers’ head coach and assistant coach played football together on the same field that their sons coach on today. Coaches Page and Wammen are too young to have boys of their own on the field, but, most townsfolk believe it’s only a matter of time. People in ranch country are patient.
Places as isolated as Harding County are sometimes referred to as 'the middle of nowhere'. But for these exceptional football players, it’s not 'nowhere' -- it’s 'now' and 'here'-- it’s their past, it’s their future, and it’s one of the best places to grow up in America.
Photo: Friday night in Harding County
Debora Dragseth, Ph.D. is an associate professor of business at Dickinson State University in Dickinson, North Dakota. She trains and develops leadership curriculum for CHS, Inc. a diversified energy, grains and foods company. The Fortune 100 company is the largest cooperative in the United States. Dragseth’s research interests include Generation Y (Millennials), outmigration and entrepreneurship.