ASHLAND — The wait is over. It’s finally football time for Ashland.
After decades of hoping and dreaming, the moment has arrived for the town’s first varsity football team. On Friday night, as about 200 parents and friends cheered, the Southern Boone Eagles made their debut on the road against North Callaway.
At the end of the first quarter, the Eagles trailed 23-0 on the way to a 50-6 loss. Expectations for a win were low, reported players and fans, but that isn’t the point. Ashland pride is too large to back down. The community has worked too hard and waited too long for this moment, and you could hear it. From the bleachers came burst upon burst of cheering, pom-pom waving, raised arms and running back Josh Hall’s enthusiastic mother, Shelley, blaring a horn.
You could hear the shouts of volunteers such as Steve Reeder, 49, and Jeff Branch, 38, who worked with the school’s booster club to raise the tens of thousands of dollars needed to field the team. They took off work to help build Southern Boone’s nearly complete football stadium with 775-seat bleachers plus an air-conditioned concession stand and press box.
Branch’s son, Cody, doesn’t play football, and Reeder’s children graduated from the school years ago. For them, as for other volunteers, sweet victory lies in the experience. There’s nothing else like Friday night football; the rush of the game, the taste of ketchup on the burger, mosquitoes nibbling at your skin, the stickiness in the air at the start of the fall season, cheerleaders wearing glitter and ribbons.
“These kids are going to be special in a way being the first team ever,” Reeder said. “Now, we just need to score a touchdown.”
Rookie team scores first touchdown
Reeder, a proud Southern Boone alumnus, would get his touchdown to make it 50-6, but he had to wait till the fourth quarter. The stars of the evening, 23 wide-eyed rookies dressed to the nines in new red-and-white uniforms, are adjusting to the heavy padding and helmets that weigh down their slender frames.
Standing on the sidelines of the green, white and earth-brown field, the newbies carefully eye the larger, more experienced team. Some tested their skills last year in Monday-night junior-varsity football, which finished 5-4. Others, coming from the baseball and basketball teams, are new to the sport. They are preparing to tackle or to be tackled. Either way, they don’t want to let Ashland down.
“We want to show pride for Ashland and not give up on a game even when we are getting hammered,” said offensive lineman and defensive linebacker Jake Taggart, 18.
There is something wholesome about Ashland, a tiny bedroom community of about 2,000, with a two-lane road and businesses with simple names such as Hair Studio and Main Street Bank. The community boasts a long history of teamwork, and parental involvement with athletics at Southern Boone runs deep. In the past few years, parents have helped finance three new sports: women’s volleyball, cross country and now football.
Grassroots effort funded team
Ashland parents and community leaders associate sports with positive American values such as teamwork, leadership and passion. Financing the team and building its stadium was a grassroots effort, and volunteers capitalized on the importance of these values by seeking out benefactors who also endorse them.
The Southern Boone Jaycees kicked off the varsity football dream with a $75,000 gift. The Dale and Edna Walsh Foundation, a conservative though not political nonprofit, gave $50,000. The Eagle Foundation, which donates to school programs, gave $60,000. The Ashland Optimist Club paid $16,000 for the bleachers.
The donations have paved the way for first-rate uniforms, bleachers, a scoreboard, press box, speakers, field lights and concession stand. It’s clear by the quality of the building materials that Ashland intends for varsity football to be a staple of Friday nights for years to come.
“How many concession stands and press boxes have glass windows and central air?” Reeder asked.
Players help to build their new stadium
As the first home game Sept. 17 approaches, players, parents, school leaders and volunteers are working overtime to finish the building projects. Based on the turnout of 400 to 500 for a scrimmage a few weeks ago, organizers expect 800 to 1,000 people to come out to Ashland for the game against Missouri Military Academy.
Coming out at 8:45 a.m., the Saturday after the first game, players such as Taggart helped install the concession stand’s air conditioner diffuser.
“I’m still a little sore,” he said, holding a silver-and-red screwdriver and standing in the crusted mud on the hilltop overlooking the game field.
For the moment, the game field was sacred ground. With coach Mike Hall leading, the team practices two hours every afternoon on a neighboring spot of land, a wide expanse of grass next to a cornfield.
“We made some good yardage there,” one player said after completing a pass at a recent practice. “You mean we made some good footage there,” quipped a teammate.
Although it has a lot to learn about making tackles and touchdowns, the team demonstrates a certain expertise in sportsmanship and grace.
Toward the end of its practice, the future of Ashland’s new sport, the middle-school football team, appears on the hilltop and watches its varsity heroes play the game. One day, the middle-school players will also get their chance to start on the varsity, and Ashland fans will be there to cheer them.