THE BUFFALO-HALL COUNTY LINE — Football is important to small towns.
You’ll find that out on Friday when many tiny, little map dots will host some of the 48 Nebraska football playoff games. They provide a town with an identity, with an outlet.
Ask the people in Shelton.
“It got to the point where it was dying a little bit,” Shelton coach Ryan Province says in his business classroom on Wednesday night of playoff week. “You could sense that my first year here, we hadn’t had a lot of success.
“The excitement level for games was not there. You could tell that (not playing games here) it was really bothering people. When it flipped back to six-man and we were back to Bulldog blue that excitement ramped up.”
Yeah, the Shelton football story in Coach (and teacher and athletic director) Province’s tenure for the Bulldogs has been, well, unique. And, for lack of a better word, tough.
The Bulldogs were 1-7 in 2019 while playing 8-man football. With numbers dwindling in the program, Province and the Shelton school board worked in a co-op with Wood River during the 2020 and 2021 seasons. The Silverbacks went 1-17 over those two seasons. In 2020, their schedule included three of the four state Class C-1 semifinalists – Adams Central, Kearney Catholic and St. Paul.
Seniors Quinn Cheney and Sam Stewart have seen most of it during high school. Chaney was the day one starter at quarterback for the 8-man Bulldogs in 2019. The Bulldogs lone win came a week after he was out for the year with a concussion. They labored through two years in the Silverback coop.
Cheney says that they are better for it.
“They were tough years, but a good learning experience,” the two-way star says now, being asked to look back. “Even though we hadn’t had a lot of success before, this year the guys have really bought in.”
Yes, the Bulldogs are back in town. And this year, their 6-2 regular season record has earned them a home date with Sterling on Friday night at 6:00 in the first round of the six-man playoffs.
With a talented group of underclassmen by their side, the leadership of Cheney, Stewart and new-to-the-game fellow senior Keaton Chavez, the Bulldogs have their eyes on a run to give the town even a little more excitement.
They have, indeed, now played every kind of football.
“I just love how open it is,” Cheney says with a smile. “And, you have to know how to tackle. A lot of times in 11-man you are trying to get through two or three guys blocking you. In six-man, it’s usually just one guy and you have to beat him and make a play.
“And, I love not ever having to come out of the game.”
Province, who grew up playing 8-man football at Anselmo-Merna, was skeptical at first, but he has grown to love it.
What makes him pull his hair out on Friday night?
“Without a doubt accounting for all six offensive players on the field at one time,” he said, all players are eligible in six-man football. “That is hands down the most stressful piece of it. And, it’s crept up on us a couple of times this season.
“But the exciting thing is figuring out ways to get all your players involved, too. When we went and watched the state championship game last year, that was a great experience for us. I grew up playing power football and I was worried we couldn’t do that (in six-man). But, when we watched, we knew we could do it.”
His seniors have made coaching the game a little easier, too. Especially on defense. Cheney leads the team in tackles, Chavez leads the team in sacks and the three have all had a takeaway for a defense that has forced 21 in eight games.
“They are all kids that lead with their physical presence,” Province said. “Everyone knows where Quinn is all the time. Sam is maybe a kid who will be a little more vocal, but for Sam playing C-1 football helped him a lot to learn how to be physical.
“Keaton has really taken up the game quickly. He leads with his effort and the kids love how he is all over the field making plays. They think if he can do that in his first year, maybe I can have some success, too.”
Underclassmen have filled up the stat sheet for the Bulldogs.
Junior Riley Bombeck is near 1,000 yards rushing on just 84 attempts with Cheney second on the team in rushing. They have both filled in a quarterback the past few weeks after sophomore starter Dylan Keaton went down with a season-ending injury.
But, mostly, they are having fun again. And, keeping their coach (and town) busy. The Bulldog girls are ranked second in Class D-2 in volleyball after a state finals run in basketball last spring. The boys qualified for state hoops, too. On Saturday, they will host a district championship volleyball game.
And, if both teams win for coach and athletic director Province? Well, he can sleep when it’s all over. The Bulldogs are having fun and the painful lessons have turned into learning experiences.
“It was almost like football didn’t even exist.” A harsh reality from a man who wears football on his sleeve.
It’s important to turn the lights on at the football field every Friday night. There is a certain emotion that is behind it. It is that way in Shelton. And many other places, too.
“It made me question how much longer I wanted to coach, to be honest,” Province said of the struggles the past three years. “We have people showing up at games that I didn’t see four years ago. But, this has reinvigorated me. It’s been a great year.”
Yes, football is back now in Shelton – in Bulldog blue.