Friday night lights weren’t just dimmed at Cherry High School the past three years.
They were burned out.
As a Cherry freshman in 2016, Austin Michaels was looking forward to playing on the football team but that desire came crashing down when school officials delivered crushing news to him and a handful of others.
“They brought us in for a meeting and said they were canceling the varsity program,” Michaels said. “It was shocking. I didn’t think I would ever be able to play varsity football, and that was heartbreaking.”
A lack of numbers — only eight players were left in the program — forced the decision. Even a Nine-Man program can’t play with only eight bodies, half of whom were on the junior high team a year earlier.
“Nobody was participating in football,” senior quarterback/free safety Justin Caple said. “Their excuses were that their mom didn’t let them or that they just didn’t want to.”
Enter Jason Marsh.
Marsh, who was a co-coach of the junior high team in 2015, was approached about reviving the program soon after it was cut.
“I said if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right and it’s going to take some time,” said Marsh, a science teacher at Cherry. “It’s not going to be a one-year kind of thing.”
Marsh, with the support of the administration, coached a grade 7-9 team in 2016 and introduced a junior varsity team the next year despite having only 10 players.
He constantly cajoled teenagers to sign up.
“Kids probably got sick of seeing me in the hallways because they knew when we crossed paths I was going to try to twist their arm and get them out for football,” he said.
Still, since the 7-8 and JV teams played earlier in the week, Fridays were dead in the town of Iron, where Cherry is located.
“There was nothing going on Fridays,” Caple said. “You would have to go watch other teams play.”
But Marsh, who attended high school in Sauk Rapids, Minn., and played college football at Saint John’s, stuck to the game plan and the varsity program returned this fall with 26 players in grades 9-12.
“Jason Marsh knew what he was doing,” Caple said. “He got more kids out to play and he was motivated to teach us. Those kids came out and they had a blast.”
Winning makes it even more fun. The Tigers fell to 2-2 after losing 15-0 at Silver Bay on Friday night. A week earlier, they beat Cook County, a three-time former Class A champ that also has struggled with participation numbers in recent years.
Michaels, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior fullback/middle linebacker, never lost faith.
“(Marsh) said that we had to climb a mountain. We were at rock bottom and had to build this program up and get the tradition back. We had to change the culture at our school,” Michaels said. “Some kids quit but a lot of us bought in. We have close to 30 kids on our varsity program now and we started out my freshman year with eight kids.”
The Mesabi East model
Though Marsh did not contact Mesabi East football coach Steve Grams and ask how to proceed with a canceled program, Grams could have told him all about it.
The Giants, an 11-player team, went silent from 2004-06 when participation evaporated in the Aurora and Hoyt Lakes areas.
But Grams and athletic director Jim James persevered, keeping the younger teams going — “there was plenty of begging,” Grams said — in the hope of reinstating a varsity team.
“We went back to a JV, just like they did,” Grams recalled. “We promoted our seventh- and eighth-graders because we knew they were going to be our future. We had numbers at the younger level but didn’t have kids who were committed at the varsity level. At that time, kids weren’t getting involved.”
Over the years that changed, though without Grams’ grassroots approach it likely would have remained dormant.
“Usually she’s gone,” Grams said in reference to a team returning from the dead.
Mesabi East now has 35 players in grades 9-12 and competes at the Class AA level.
Though the teams won't play each other, Grams is happy to see Cherry resuscitate its varsity.
“It’s nice to see Cherry has gone through the heartache and tough times but now has seen some success,” he said. “They are putting a competitive team on the field. The kids got to play at a younger level, and now that they are at the varsity level they are playing well.
“To get that big win against Cook County, it would have been great to be on the field or in the hallways the next week.”
Home is on the road
The next step in the rebirth is to play at home.
Construction and expansion at the school meant the old football field could not be used.
Before Friday, the Tigers played their previous two games in Mountain Iron, including the “home” game against Cook County, where an estimated 1,000-plus fans were in attendance.
“Everyone is just happy to see we have a program back here,” Michaels said. “It was awesome.”
Due to the construction, the Tigers have been practicing on a field outside Cherry Town Hall.
“It’s basically just some grass but we make do,” Marsh said. “We have an area that’s about three-quarters of a football field, with no goalposts.”
The hardship has further strengthened the bond among the players, Marsh said.
“When we first had to go off-site, there was a lot of frustration because it caught us off-guard,” the coach said. “We talked about it with the kids and said, ‘We’ll practice anywhere, we’ll play anywhere. It doesn’t matter. It’s not the facility that you have, it’s what you do on Friday nights.’ The kids have responded very well.”
When it’s finished — likely by next season — Cherry athletics will have new game and practice football fields, a press box, a new baseball field, a fitness center and locker rooms. Monies came via equity aid determined by the state’s public school funding formula. And since District 2142, which includes South Ridge, Northeast Range and North Woods high schools, is so immense, it receives a greater amount of aid.
“The program has literally and figuratively been under construction the last five years so it’s probably fitting that now our facilities are being worked on,” Marsh said.
Players have come to accept the situation.
“It’s too bad that we won’t be able to play a homecoming football game,” Michaels surmised, “but you have to deal with the cards that were dealt to you and play through it.”
For Michaels and others, all the high school football hardships are now in the past.
“Every second, every day in the weight room has been worth it,” he said.