Old rivalry, new memories

by Tom Coombe
Echo editor
Football may not immediately come to mind when the typical Minnesotan thinks of Ely or Grand Marais.
Separated by a windy road, with Lake Superior at one end and the BWCAW at the other, the two communities are destination points for thousands of travelers, from inside the state and far beyond, year after year.
Yet when it comes to football rivalries, the one between Ely and Cook County High School of Grand Marais has endured.
In the 1990s, football masterminds Larry Mischke and Lyle Anderson locked horns in a series of big games.
Anderson’s Vikings knocked Ely out of the playoffs in 1991, while Ely got some revenge at home a couple of years later - although Cook County fans left town that night upset about an inadvertent whistle that cost their team a touchdown and probably a win.
On a crisp October afternoon in 1995, Mischke rotated quarterbacks Todd Weinzerl and Charlie Merfeld on a game-winning drive that clinched an unbeaten regular season and a conference title.
Late in the same decade the Vikings gained the upper hand in the rivalry during a run that included three Class A state titles.
Darren Visser was at the helm of the Ely program in 2001, when four days before the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Wolves back Nick Levar ran wild and scored five touchdowns in a 54-46 triple-overtime shootout that went to the Vikings
More recently. a Brian Lamppa-led Ely team blanked Cook County in a section final game played on Esko’s artificial turf, and only three years ago one could hear the cheering all the way to the Big Lake as Cook County, with the help of a successful onside kick, scored a come-from-behind victory.
As school enrollment has dipped, Ely has fallen from Class AA to A and finally to the 9-man ranks.
Schools that were staples on the football schedule a couple of decades ago - Esko, Mesabi East and Moose Lake-Willow River to name three - are now too large for Ely to play. For a time, Ely had a pretty healthy rivalry with Deer River, but the Warriors too have remained in the 11-man ranks.
Cook County, which has seen similar losses in student population, has been on a parallel path with Ely and remains one constant on the football schedule.
It’s been awhile since Cook County stoked the fears of football opponents as it did in its heyday, and the Wolves, who have now added players from Babbitt’s Northeast Range High School to their roster, are also in a rebuilding mode.
The stakes for last Friday’s game fell short of many of the previous Ely-Cook County clashes. It’s doubtful that either team will put together a section championship run on the gridiron this fall.
But pulling into Grand Marais for last Friday’s game, and driving up the hill to the field now named in Anderson’s honor, there was anticipation and a bit of nervousness.
Clearly, it was a “winnable” game for both teams and figured to be evenly-matched and entertaining. Cook County had split its matchups while the Wolves were 0-2 and hungry after two close losses.
The nervousness came because our Robert, or “Big Bob” as he’s called by some teammates and coaches, was in the starting lineup for the first time in his prep football career. Other than me, only his mom was prouder when Robert’s name was announced and he ran across the field when lineups were introduced.
The game lived up to its expectations as both teams showed early on they could score. Ely quarterback Gunnar Hart connected with fellow senior Jason Kerntz, and the Wolves’ speedster took off down the left sideline for what turned into a 70-yard scoring play just moments into the contest. It was a signal of things to come.
Cook County, using 270-pound fullback Kole Anderson, countered with its own drive. The burly Viking was a human wrecking ball, but the hosts were not one-dimensional.
The Vikings went to the air and even blocked an Ely punt, turning that into a touchdown en route to a 24-8 halftime lead.
It was 30-14 midway through the third quarter, but nobody told the Wolves they were supposed to roll over or fade away.
Kerntz ran a kickoff back for a touchdown, the Ely defense forced a turnover and all of a sudden the Wolves’ “Heavy Jumbo” rushing attack took hold. Robert, all 255 pounds of him, was part of the line that moved bodies and senior running back Erron Anderson plowed through.
Anderson’s touchdown with a minute left gave the Wolves a 42-36 lead and it appeared the Wolves had pulled off a remarkable win.
Yet somehow the Vikings came back, connecting on a long pass to force overtime and bringing back memories of that 2001 encounter on the same field.
Both teams traded touchdowns in the first overtime, and Cook County’s Anderson was a battering ram in the second. The Vikings scored in just a couple of plays and stopped the Wolves a couple yards shy of paydirt.
The numbers were eye-popping. A 58-50 final score and the most points ever scored in an Ely football game. For Kerntz, over 300 total yards and four touchdowns, with Erron Anderson netting another 100-plus and three TDs.
Kole Anderson was magnificent in his own right for Cook County, and he and his teammates were swarmed by classmates and parents in the moments after the victory.
After nearly three hours on the field, the Wolves meanwhile had suffered their third straight loss. All have been close, but this one was a gut-wrencher.
The Ely boys, including our own, were dejected and exhausted as they made the slow walk from the field toward the locker room. Their tears were genuine. One couldn’t help but hurt for and be prideful of them all at once.
U.S. Bank Stadium isn’t apt to host either the Vikings or Wolves when the state tournament is played there in November, and Friday’s game probably won’t have a bearing on a conference championship or even a winning record.
But the two teams created memories that night, ones that will last a lifetime. Lessons were learned in victory and defeat. Emotions ran the gamut.
With Ely and Cook County, one wouldn’t expect anything less.