Can support of an 8-man football team bring rival Nebraska communities together after consolidation?

Downtown Dodge remains quiet throughout the day.

By Kyle Cummings, NewsNetNebraska

There are two main centers to every small town: the main business strip and the high school stadium. Finding downtown Dodge is simple. The football field, on the other hand, will never be found. At least not hosting a high school football game.

Last April, the Dodge School Board voted to consolidate its high school with neighboring town Howells. The merger moved all high school students to Howells, while an elementary school remained in Dodge.

Running a town of 600 people in a recession is tough. Running a town without a high school is tougher. But in the end, the Dodge School Board decided that the education of its students was more important for the town.

The decision literally split the community of Dodge. Some people, primarily parents and people within the school system, were very much for the consolidation, while some, mostly business owners, argued heavily against the idea.

“The bottom line really is making sure the children of the two communities are getting the best education that prepares them for the future,” said eight-man football expert John Wunder, a former University of Nebraska Emeritus Professor of Journalism and History. From the mergers Wunder has seen put in place, many people are skeptical about change.

To make matters worse, business owners of Dodge are afraid to take a stance on the issue.

“I don’t say one way or the other,” Dodge grocery store owner Malinda Kempt said about the merger, “because it does affect businesses when you quote your opinion.”

Several business owners refused an interview out of fear of losing business to those who had differing opinions.

Many business owners did in fact lose a profit because of the merger. “Basically because a lot of the activities are held over there, the grocery store over there gets all of the concession stands,” Kempt said. “The high school food program is over there. We have the elementary school, but they just don’t eat as much as the high-schoolers of course. We lost out on that too.”

Kempt is not alone as a business owner. Other businesses throughout town, who asked not to be mentioned in the story, also admitted a loss of business.

As times remain economically tough, mergers are becoming more common throughout rural Nebraska. Financial restrictions often cause small towns to merge schools to maintain education requirements.

The Howells-Dodge consolidation is just one of 24 Nebraska School Activities Association consolidations since 2001. Just three years ago, East Butler High School, in Brainard absorbed most of the closing high school district from Prague.

Dave Struebing, East Butler’s Assistant Activities Director and previous head football coach knows the pain a town sees when a merger is put in place. “That’s always a difficult thing when your community loses a school,” he said. “To an extent you get a sense that the community is dying in a small way.”

The concern that Struebing saw from people from Prague about the merger dissolved quickly. All of the students meshed very well, he said, with the exception of one girl. Chelsea Strauss was a senior and participated in volleyball, basketball and track at East Butler High.

With only two of her original classmates making the transition with her, Strauss said she hated having to change schools and make new friends. Although there were the occasional jokes that “Prague kids didn’t know what they’re talking about in sports,” Strauss said sports were one of the few ways to cope through the transition.

“Like anything else, time heals everything,” Struebing said, “and after a few weeks I think as friendships were made things went much better for her.”

The time needed to heal everything between Dodge and Howells? That depends on who you ask. Kempt thinks it will take a few years for everything to calm down. Wunder said a state championship. As for Howells-Dodge football coach Mike Speirs, he saw a positive relationship from both communities from the initiation of the consolidation.

“Both communities had a very proud tradition of athletics, very proud of their communities as a whole,” Speirs said. “Putting them together seemed to bring out the best of people.”

Speirs realized the consolidation was not highly favored at first in Dodge, so he was impressed by the ambition of each town’s leaders to smooth the transition. People would go out of their way to make sure they got along with each other and make this consolidation work, Speirs said.

The support is not going unnoticed either. After defeating a 3-5 Nebraska Christian team, 44-20, opposing coaches and parents praised the communities of Howells-Dodge for being a class-act both on and off the field.

An excerpt of a letter to the editor that ran in the Dodge Criterion the week following the game read:

“Thank you. Multiple people from our school echoed the sentiment that Howells-Dodge was one of the most classy programs we have had the privilege to compete against. This speaks well of the community and the leadership of the entire school system.’ – Carl Ostrand – Nebraska Christian Head football coach.”

Maintaining support for the merger is a start, but Dodge has more work to do. Without a high school, Dodge will need development strategies to survive. The future of Dodge is a sensitive topic around town. Business owners seemed to shy around the question, but they will eventually need to face it.

“I think people are going to have to step back and look at how they handle change and if they can handle change,” Kempt said. “I know that as businesses we’ve been hurt and hurt hard. I’m trying to stay positive through the whole thing.”

While businesses throughout Dodge look for ways to bring in customers, supporters continue to flock with the football team to cheer on Howells-Dodge athletics.

Fifteen miles away, a line of F-150 and diesel trucks idle bumper to bumper up to the gate of the final regular season road game for the newly merged Howells-Dodge football team. Hundreds of green-wearing parents and fans funnel in through an empty softball dugout, walk to where an outfield fence would normally be and find a spot to stand along the ropes that surround the football field. Three bleachers are provided for the visitors, but almost nobody sits.

Even the fans in the four-rowed bleachers are standing. For all 60-minutes of playing time, fans from each team intermingle around the field. Eight-man football is important to these communities. In many instances, high school football is rural Nebraska. This is a chance for rural Nebraskans to socialize. It’s their chance to get away from uncertainty at work and keep their minds busy. They stay until the buzzer ends a 34-8 Howells-Dodge victory over Clarkson-Leigh. If just for 60 minutes, people can put aside problems and support their team.

In the end, people from each community will move on. For supporters moving on comes naturally and may have already happened. For those hesitant, though, the sting will burn into the future.

“Maybe we’ll all come around again,” Kempt said. “Will it hurt? Yeah. How long? Nobody knows.”

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