When Highland had to cancel its game with Sterling City, it forced the district to take action and allow the Hornets to play three games in 14 days, which would include games on a Monday and Wednesday.
I kept in touch with Highland head coach Ben Smith along the way and have chronicled our conversations for this historic run of games.
First of all, thank you for doing this. On Wednesday (October 20) we exchanged text messages after the first game. In that exchange, you responded, “The gauntlet has begun.”
Let’s start there. What prompted the “gauntlet”?
“After our Week 7 loss to a tough Westbrook team, we knew our game against Sterling City
would make or break our playoff chances. That Saturday one of our athletes tested positive for
COVID. The entire football team and coaches were quarantined for the next five days and not
allowed to return until they had either tested negative or waited 10 days. This effectively cancelled our game with Sterling City.
“After one week of no contact and no practice, 11 of our 27 athletes and two of three coaches returned to practice on Monday not knowing if we would get a chance to play Sterling City. That evening our DEC met to re-schedule our games to fit them in. That night we agreed to play our 1st of three games on Wednesday. The next against Bronte five days later, and finally, Sterling City another five days after. Each game we play, our opponent is coming off a bye week.
“’THE GAUNTLET!’ - The name came into play for two reasons. Our gauntlet drill is a series of
defenders that the ball carrier must run through to get to the finish line. It gets harder with less
recovery time between each level/defender, just as our schedule has become with three games in 12 days, without being fully staffed.
“The second comes from the saying, ‘throw down the gauntlet’, meaning to challenge or
confront an opponent. Not only are we challenging our opponent, we are challenging our
mental and physical ability to rise to the occasion in a short amount of time. One of our team
motto’s, ‘You don’t have to get ready, if you stay ready’ (from Principal and former six-man coach Shane Mallory) will be put to the test the next couple days.”
On Wednesday, October 21, the Hornets defeat Robert Lee, 48-0, in the first game of The Gauntlet.
Today (Friday, October 23), how’s the health and attitude of the team?
“At this point we have two starters out, one in quarantine and one with a small pre-game injury from Wednesday. We still have eight guys in quarantine that will return on Monday. They are very focused on the task at hand and are embracing the grind.”
Are there any concerns about playing high quality district games in this way?
“Yes and No. I think it will be mentally and physically taxing on us as a team. We will have to
play through some bumps and bruises and some younger guys will have to step up and fill some big rolls. At this point in the season, we should be fundamentally sound and know how to execute when tired. It will come down to being able to adjust to different schemes rapidly.”
What will be your message to your team about approaching the weekend to play on a Monday?
“We always have a short practice and film on Saturday, so that won’t change much. The guys all want to have a good practice on Sunday to make sure we are sound on game plan. That way we can rest and recover, knowing we won’t get to again until we have completed ‘The Gauntlet’.”
On Monday, October 26, Highland continues their winning ways with a 58-6 win over Bronte. Now all that remains is a matchup with top-ranked Sterling City, who is coming off a physical win over then #2 Westbrook.
Tuesday, October 27
How did your team respond to having a Monday game?
“It was definitely a new situation from the normal, but this year’s normal seems like it’s few and far between. Our athletes have learned how to overcome adversity in many ways. We knew to expect change and adapt. They came out Monday and played well. It was the first time we have been full staff since The Gauntlet started. We made sure everyone was getting reps to get back into the swing of things.”
You also had to change the time due to weather, how did that affect game prep? (The game was moved up in the day due to impending inclement weather)
“Knowing a big freeze was on its way, we had a walk-through Monday morning and had the mindset of, be prepared for anything, and be surprised by nothing. We thought we might have some rest until that evening, but despite not, we were ready to go out and fire on all cylinders.”
Is anyone standing out so far, two games into this?
“Seniors QB Seth Garrett and RB Jacob Hamilton have not only stood out on the field but also in their roles as leaders on and off the field. They know every position and always make sure our younger guys know what to do.”
Today, how’s the health and attitude of the team?
“We were not able to have practice today with all the ice and snow we received. We communicated on group messaging and went over scheme and game plan. They also had a mandatory amount of film they were required to scout. Losing another day of practice on the field really sets us back at this point, but being able to learn our opponent is a vital part of any competition.”
Now what will be your message to your team about approaching Saturday?
“Our message will stay the same. We must be able to prepare for whatever is thrown in front of us. Know the game plan and scheme. Don’t be a cowboy and execute. I told them today, we haven’t come this far and worked through this many obstacles just to slack off now. Finish what you start no matter how hard or exhausting it may be. We can rest once we have completed our task. I remind the seniors that they have one more guaranteed game, and if they want to continue this journey, they will have to play harder than ever and lead the team.”
In the final game of The Gauntlet, Highland falls to Sterling City, 68-22. With the loss, the Hornets are eliminated from playoff contention and with no week 11 game, their season is over.
Sunday, November 1
You just completed playing three district games in 12 days. How is your team, both physically and emotionally?
“Physically, we managed to stay pretty healthy with only one minor injury. More than anything I think we are mentally and physically fatigued from the constant grind of switching opponents and schemes and long practices without recovery days.
“Emotionally, there’s no way to describe how seniors feel knowing they have played their last game of football. Nothing in life can replace that feeling of strapping on the guns and going to battle with your brothers; it’s one of a kind. But on the flip side we are proud of our ability to overcome all of the obstacles that were thrown at us throughout The Gauntlet. We know where we stand and what we need to improve on going into the offseason.”
It is a tough and challenging way for the season to end, but on a positive note, what can you take away from the last two weeks?
“Our team rose to the occasion every time we asked them to. There was never complaining. It was always ‘yes sir, let’s go to work’. They could have shut down and quit at any point after the quarantine and written off the season, but they refused to let it end that way. That’s definitely a proud moment for a coaching staff, knowing they won’t just quit when life gets a little tough.”
What will you remember most from this season?
“I think the most memorable thing at this point was the attitude and determination of the guys, and how it changed once we knew ‘The Gauntlet’ was ahead of us. Everyone has bad days of practice and in life in general. No matter what happened, those guys came to work every day. Knowing they were about to have a grueling long practice the day after a game, without a break didn’t faze them. Athletes who are determined and committed will rise to the situation and we did just that. The coaching staff was phenomenal at game planning and keeping intensity up at practice. We would not have had most of our success without them.”
What did you tell your team after the game and have you shared anything with them about the way they handled this season?
“We talked with them about how well they handled the situation. We didn’t come out of it with the results we had hoped for, but we knew Sterling City would be the best team we played all year and that we would have less than half the usual time to prepare for them.
“We had some guys that stepped up and became leaders on and off the field and we preached about how pivotal of a role they had in bringing the team together and in our success. The biggest thing to us was their ability to battle back when life threw an obstacle in the way. In the end who they become as citizens, husbands, and parents far outweighs how they played a game of football. Not giving up and shutting down shows a lot of their growth as young men. Our coaches and administrators have been great role models and have set the bar high for them and it shows.”
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