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With only an injury-hobbled Three Rivers left on the schedule, it seems all but certain that Vicksburg will end up with a 7-2 record for the second year in a row and again will be co-champions of their league. Martens is pleased at the prospect of such fine back-to-back seasons. The seniors are equally happy to have made their point—to have shown that in their own rowdy, laughing way they are as successful as the model student-athletes of the year before. As the season winds down, there is a lot of good feeling among the coaches and players, many of whom are beginning to think about winter sports. Steve Hunt is looking forward to wrestling again, and Schutter and Noel are getting ready for basketball. Mike Blough, the easy-going assistant coach, is also preparing for basketball, having agreed to act as temporary head coach for one year because the previous basketball coach has unexpectedly left for a job in another state. Blough, a guidance counselor, had been head football coach for 10 years before voluntarily resigning. He says his attitude toward competitive sports changed during his head-coaching tenure.
"I had got to the point," he says, "where I wanted to tell the kids that sometimes we were going to meet bigger, better teams, and when we did, no matter how much we wanted it otherwise, we were going to get beat, and it wouldn't be any great disaster. But a coach can't say that or even feel that way and keep a program going. Or, at least, we don't think we can.
"There was another thing, just an incident. I felt very proud of the work I did with one kid because I thought I had helped him mature and settle down. In a way, he was my prize. He got an athletic grant to a fairly good college for football. He was there six months, got messed up with dope and some bad friends, was cut from the football team, dropped out of school and got into trouble. All the coaching and counseling, the best I thought I had ever done, didn't change things. That really shook me.
"I still love the game and I like helping Bruce. It's a good game. It gives some of the kids a lot of pleasure and excitement, which is probably the best thing about it. But I guess I've lost my faith that it is the end-all and be-all."
The team's general air of self-congratulation does not please Rick Jensen, who has a bad ankle and is still coughing from his cold. "All those guys talking about our great season," he says irritably. "Those turkeys from Three Rivers could clean us. They got a runner who is very decent. In track he won the hurdles last year. I'm sure not going to catch him if he gets a step, and if he gets past the line we'll try to dance with him, and he'll dance right past." As he so often is, Jensen is right again. The speedy Three Rivers back dances. Jensen does not play as well as usual. Nobody tackles or blocks very well. At halftime Vicksburg trails by two touchdowns.
Bruce Martens is forced out of his go-easy approach. "There's no point talking about plays or blocking assignments." he tells the team scornfully during halftime. "They are beating you one-on-one. Their tackles are beating our tackles. Their guards are firing off harder than ours are. Their linebackers are beating our runners. You guys are being handled. Forget all that last-game crap, and go out there and play football instead of thinking about it."
The analysis and advice are sound, but they do no good. Vicksburg sinks further into disarray. Among other things, the antagonism between Cree and Jensen flares into the open. When Chip explains why he missed a block. Jensen barks at him.
"I told him to quit talking to me," says Jensen afterwards. "In fact, I told him not to talk to me ever anymore." Only Noel is immune to the general peevishness, insisting to the coaches, to Jeff Schutter, to everyone, that if somebody will just get the ball to him deep he'll catch it and turn the game around.
It is a raw, bitter night with snow and mud on the field. Schutter is having a terrible time of it. Often he cannot pass when he wants to, and when he can he passes weakly for incompletions or interceptions. The shocked Vicksburg rooters, who had expected to celebrate the conclusion of a triumphant season, begin to jeer at Schutter and chant, "We want Hughey. We want Hughey."
Randy Hughey is a junior quarterback who can throw farther than Schutter but has played behind him because the senior is a better runner, better signal caller, better all-round leader. Martens finally orders Hughey to warm up, puts him in the game and takes out Schutter, who spends the last minutes of his high school career alone at the end of the bench with his head down, covered by a hood.