By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — If it wasn’t for the occasional ski trip to Montana, Dana Matthews would have needed to buy an entirely new wardrobe for his trip to Mankato.
Instead, the Destin, Fla., resident dug deep into his closet to find his ski outfit and the furry brown thing on top of his head that he described as his Grizzly Adams hat. He knew spending the afternoon outside at Blakeslee Stadium was going to be a lot different than hanging out at his home near the tip of the Florida panhandle.
“I knew sitting outside on these cold steel benches wasn’t going to be fun,” Matthews said.
He had just finished leading cheers for his son Chas’ Valdosta State University football team as the team took the field Saturday. Valdosta was in town to play the undefeated Minnesota State University Mavericks in a game that would decide who would travel to Alabama next week for the NCAA Division II championship game.
Judging from his hat, Matthews could have been exaggerating a bit while he described what his son’s team did to prepare for playing in temperatures in the 30s. Valdosta, Ga., is near the Florida border. Except for a 300-pound tackle from way up north in Wichita, Kan., and a darn good quarterback from Cashion, Okla., every player on the team is from Georgia, Alabama or Louisiana.
“It was 78 degrees last Saturday when we were playing ball,” Matthews said. “Fifty degrees is like really, really cold for us. The coaches had them taking ice baths after every practice to get ready. They all have heat packs in their shoes.”
John Swensen, a longtime Mavericks fan, noticed the Valdosta team had to borrow their big sideline jackets from Grinnell College, a team with similar colors in Iowa. He also noticed the team brought a uniformed and armed Georgia state trooper with them. They take football seriously down south and its not uncommon for even high school football coaches to have police escorts, said Debi Frocks, Valdosta team secretary and “den mother.”
As the Mavericks took a quick 10-0 lead, Swensen predicted a close game even though he thought the Valdosta team didn’t look as fired up as the team MSU played last week.
“I’m going with 17 to 14 and MSU might win,” he said. “Valdosta looks cold. You can just see it in their psyche.”
Daryl Woodward, a former player for the Mavericks, wasn’t making any predictions as the sun was setting, the game was wearing on and that lead turned into a deficit that kept getting bigger. The former offensive guard from the early 90s said it was only the third game he had been to during the past 20 years.
One of those games was two weeks ago and the other was a homecoming game he doesn’t remember. Woodward’s predicting the Mavericks’ undefeated regular season and serious playoff run will bring him, and other fickle fans, back more often.
A bonus Saturday was the tailgating atmosphere that greeted him in the parking lot, he said.
“This is great,” Woodward said as he surveyed the packed stands on MSU’s side of the field. “It takes it back to the old NCC days, back when North Dakota and North Dakota State used to come to town. I know a lot of people who were going to be up here at 9 a.m. starting the charcoal in their grills.”
The weather wasn’t the factor MSU fans hoped it would be. At the end of the game, it was the Mavericks’ kicker who looked chilly. He missed an extra point and a short field goal that threatened to change the momentum of the game.
It turns out Valdosta also had a big-name Minnesota player on the sidelines keeping them fired up. Larry Dean, a special teams standout and backup linebacker for the Vikings, set the school record for tackles at Valdosta a couple years ago. He’s a Vikings free agent who has made the Pro Bowl ballot both years he’s played with the team.
“Most of these guys played with him,” Frocks said. “He’s a real local hero to these guys. They always looked up to him because of his work ethic.”
Valdosta will be the team traveling to Alabama next Saturday, which Matthews pointed out will be much easier trip for him for more than one reason. The Mavericks lost 35-19.