[This is my column in today’s issue of The Commercial Review.]
I had a sour taste in my mouth last week.
When I walked in to Harold E. Schutz Stadium Friday night to cover the Jay County High School football sectional opener against Marion, I looked up at the stands to try and spot the few people I’ve met in my short stay in Portland.
What I saw was rather bleak.
There were a lot of people at the game dressed as bleachers.
It’s understandable that Jay School Corporation was on fall break — a concept new to this Michigander — and that some students live a good distance from the high school.
However, this is when the football team needs the most support.
“It feels awesome just to be able to look up there and see everyone yelling and screaming,” said senior fullback J.D. Mangas, who is also the unofficial school leader in career rushing.
Mangas’ 2,880 rushing yards over the last two seasons — an average more than 8.5 yards per carry — are the most rushing yards by any Jay County player in more than 10 years.
“If you’re out there on the field and everyone gets excited and you hear the crowd roar, it gives you that feeling and that boost inside to get going and give your best on that play and do your job,” he said.
The Patriots have been doing some spectacular things this season.
They set the school record for scoring (69) against Anderson Prep. They have as many wins (seven) as the 2010 and 2011 teams combined. And they won their first sectional game in six years.
Coach Tim Millspaugh has the second-best record for a first-year head coach since Tom Bruin went 8-2 in 1975, the first Jay County football season.
The Patriot offense is running amuck, rushing for 3,146 yards, which is fourth-best in Class 4A. Mangas is the best JCHS runner in recent history and currently ranks No. 2 in the state in total rushing yards.
On the defensive side of the ball, Eric Hemmelgarn has more tackles for loss (27) than the entire 2012 squad, who had 25 a year ago.
Spencer Patterson, the Patriots’ fourth-leading tackler with 51 stops, says the team is doing what they can to fill the stands.
“We try our hardest,” the senior linebacker said. “We try to bring people (out to the games), but sometimes they don’t like the weather.
“But we can’t change that.”
And as Jay County searches for its second sectional championship in six years, the competition on the field will continue rise and the temperatures will continue to fall.
The only game Jay County could even possibly have in the postseason that wouldn’t be affected by Mother Nature is Nov. 30 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the site of the state championship.
In the four games left on the road to Lucas Oil Stadium, three of those games can potentially be played here in Jay County. The only definite road game would be Nov. 8 at New Haven or Frankfort, if, of course, the Patriots beat the Norwell Knights on Friday.
And at any remaining home games, the stands need to be filled.
“It’s a group of kids that our community should be very proud of and I definitely encourage people to come out and watch them,” JCHS coach Tim Millspaugh said. “It is exciting when you walk out and you see the stands packed.”
The atmosphere during the Wallaceburg game Sept. 6 was tremendous. Even the game Oct. 11 against future Allen County Athletic Conference foe Heritage was roaring.
Both were come-from-behind victories by Jay County.
The Patriots need those stands packed again Friday against the Knights. They feed off the crowd.
“I remember our sectional final game (in 2007), the players walked out and they had all those towels that they were shaking and people were yelling,” said Millspaugh, who was then the defensive coordinator. “You get goosebumps. It’s really exciting.
“That’s the home-field advantage. All those kids deserve the chance to play in that type of environment.”
After all, there’s the chance to witness history.
Jay County has advanced to the sectional title game just twice. This Friday, the Patriots have a chance to make it three.
“I encourage everyone to come out,” Millspaugh said. “I know the weather is going to be better. It is supposed to be 60 degrees. I’m sure it won’t be at game time, but it’ll be warmer.
“I can’t promise we’re going to win the game, but I can promise the kids will be prepared and the kids will give their absolute very best.
“They’ve done that all year, and it will be a fun night.”
I too, encourage you to fill the stands at Harold E. Schutz Stadium on Friday night.
Come out and watch an exciting team that all can be proud about, because November football should never been taken for granted.