Football programs merge

Low numbers scuttle Northeast Range season, but several Nighthawks set to join Ely program; debut set for Sept. 3

by Nick Wognum
There will be no “Friday Night Lights” in Babbitt this fall, but an 11th-hour development will clear the way for Northeast Range students to play football this year nonetheless.
The Nighthawks’ season was suspended last week because of “drastically low numbers,” according to Northeast Range athletic director Aaron Donais.
Yet those Northeast Range athletes looking for a place to play have found one 15 minutes down the road from Babbitt.
With the blessing of the Minnesota State High School League as well as conference opponents, Ely and Northeast Range took steps early this week toward approval of a cooperative agreement.
It would allow Northeast Range athletes to suit up for the Ely Timberwolves, and as many as nine were expected to attend an Ely practice Wednesday.
“We’re making the best of what was a difficult situation,” said Donais. “And we’re looking forward to what this opportunity has to offer.”
While the Nighthawks had hopes of fielding a team and competing in the prep football 9-man ranks this fall, only 10 players in grades 9-12 came out for the team when practices began the week of Aug. 16.
Absences at some workouts brought those numbers down even further, and school officials said they had little choice but to pull the plug.
Donais met with school administrators and initiated discussions with Ely late last week. Those talks progressed over the weekend, and were capped by a Tuesday conference call with Erich Martens, executive director of the Minnesota State High School League, and MSHSL Assciate Director Bob Madison.
“Typically cooperatives are not allowed once a season has begun,” said Ely Athletic Director Tom Coombe. “But I think the MSHSL recognized this was a unique situation, and that something was needed in order to give the Northeast Range kids a place to play. Our numbers are OK but not great by any means, so this is good for the Ely program as well.”
Coombe said Ely has 21 players in grades 9-12 and just a handful in the seventh and eighth-grade ranks.
“I think the writing was on the wall,” said Coombe. “You look at the numbers Northeast Range has and then our participation in the lower grades, we needed each other for football to remain a viable option.”
Ely, under the direction of first-year head coach Louie Gerzin, is set to open the 2021 season on Sept. 3, hosting Carlton-Wrenshall at Ely School Stadium.
Gerzin was hoping to quickly integrate some of the former Nighthawks into the ranks and develop some depth as the Wolves look to rebuild.
Northeast Range players will also find a familiar face at the Ely practices, with former Nighthawks assistant coach Robert Poderzay now part of Gerzin’s staff.
The team now has seven games, four at home and three on the road, with a void on Oct. 15. That’s the date Ely and Northeast Range were scheduled to play each other.
And though the Wolves remain part of a 9-Man conference for regular season play, the merger between Ely and Northeast Range forces the team into the 11-man ranks for the postseason and into Section 7A, which includes Braham, Barnum, North Woods, Chisholm, Deer River and East Central.
Coombe said the program will look for an 11-man opponent to play on Oct. 15, but it may be a longshot given the late date.
“Schedules are set and really the only possibility is if another small-school program folds or dissolves and somebody else has an open date as a result,” said Coombe.
While the cooperative remains subject to approval of both school districts and is only for this year, both athletic directors said they’re hopeful for a more long-term arrangement.
If enough Northeast Range students come out, the program will also have a schedule of junior high games.