The St. Scholastica football team was anxious and excited to start its season three weeks ago, like teams across the nation who were denied playing a year ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, that anticipation is almost unbearable.
The day before the Saints’ season opener Sept. 4 against Sewanee (Tenn.), a CSS player tested positive for COVID. The school reviewed the situation, looking at the contact tracing and the like, and decided that the right thing to do was to cancel the football game.
“It was obviously a gut punch,” said senior running back and Moose Lake grad Bryceton Butkiewicz.
But after a year and a half of one gut punch after another, a lot of athletes have guts of steel at this point, the Saints included.
“With COVID still hanging around, it’s not that you’re ready for it, but nothing really can surprise us anymore,” Butkiewicz said. “It’s just another thing to overcome. You have to roll with the punches and move onto the next game.”
That next game is at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, against Augsburg at Public Schools Stadium.
“It feels like it’s been forever since we played, but now, it feels like Christmas Day,” Butkiewicz said.
Not only is it the Saints’ season opener, it’s the program’s first contest as a member of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
Cross your fingers and knock on COVID, but hopefully this game gets in.
“We’re excited, to say the least,” Saints coach Mike Heffernan said. “(Our season opener) was about to happen, then all of a sudden, hold on, it’s going to be another couple weeks.
“The biggest thing was to get them out of camp mode. We weren’t in camp anymore. School had started. Much like the last year and half, they’ve had to face one adversity after another. But like I told the guys, this is all about how we respond to it, how we handle ourselves.”
While everyone will remember some ugly CSS losses against MIAC opponents, including the infamous 98-donut game against NCAA Division III power St. John’s in the 2017 season opener, that was a perfect storm that snowballed, avalanched, whatever cliche you want to call it.
Augsburg comes in 0-2, including a 46-38 loss to Ripon College in the season opener. Ripon is a team St. Scholastica played a couple times in recent years, winning one and losing one.
In addition, St. Scholastica’s old league, the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference, played MIAC teams last week, losing all three but nearly pulling off an upset as Hamline had to hold on for a 30-28 victory against Minnesota-Morris.
“This will be a big step for our football program, and our institution as a whole,” Butkiewicz said. “This is the conference we want to be at, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who you’re playing, we’re going to go out there, do our thing and worry about us.”
Being competitive in this new league isn’t as far off as some might think.
“And any given Saturday it can be anybody’s day,” Heffernan said. “The thing that never fails is that a football team that is hungry, a football team that is well coached and organized, will always have an opportunity to win because they’re going to come in and compete.”
One of those Heffernan doesn’t have to worry about in that regard is Butkiewicz.
The 6-foot, 222-pounder excelled for Moose Lake-Willow River and always comes ready to play. He grew up on a 650-acre farm near Kettle River that included beef cattle, hay, vegetables, raspberry jam and jelly. He knows something about hard work, returning home each summer to work the farm.
Butkiewicz has been a versatile and dependable running back in his two years at CSS, including 56 carries for 164 yards and two touchdowns in 2019, as well as 26 receptions for 215 yards for the Saints (7-3).
“Bryceton is a captain for us and there’s a reason he’s a captain,” Heffernan said. “It’s because he works extremely hard on the field and in the classroom. He has the trust of his coaches and teammates. He is someone I can always count on, and is just a great kid.”
Butkiewicz will graduate in May with a double major in marketing and business management and carries a 3.9 grade-point average.
While Butkiewicz wouldn’t rule out another year, even if he doesn’t, he said he has had a wonderful experience at CSS, despite all the setbacks COVID has provided.
“First off, the school up here is amazing,” Butkiewicz said. “And being part of this football program, being part of something bigger than oneself, it’s an amazing thing to be a part of. I haven’t thought too far ahead because right now, I’m just focused on this season.”
AUGSBURG AT ST. SCHOLASTICA
What: Saints’ first MIAC football game; CSS season opener
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Public Schools Stadium
Records: Augsburg 0-2, CSS 0-0
Forecast: afternoon sun with a high of 63 and 15 mph wind