Rubado column: A Battle for the Paddle preview and a look back at last year's classic ending
Detroit Lakes head coach Reed Hefta and Perham head coach Aron Velde previewed the Battle for the Paddle this Friday, including a look back on last year's remarkable finish at Ted Meinhover Field. This is an opinion column written by Jared Rubado. Opinions expressed do not specifically represent the Detroit Lakes Tribune.
DETROIT LAKES – I’ll never forget my first Battle for the Paddle.
The annual Highway 10 football game between Detroit Lakes and Perham ended with dropped jaws on both sidelines.
For the Yellowjackets, Levi Richter’s 52-yard touchdown with 13 seconds left turned Perham’s fortunes from a heartbreaking loss to a standout win. Quarterback Colton Hackel threw a short pass to Josh Peterson, who flipped the ball to Richter streaking down the sideline. The hook-and-ladder play gave Perham the lead for the final time at Ted Meinehover Field that night.
For the Lakers, it was the realization that one of their best moments of the year would be left in the shadows. Quarterback Bradly Swiers led a 69-yard touchdown drive to give Detroit Lakes a 27-23 lead with 33 seconds left in the third quarter. Yet, just minutes later, the lead was gone.
“For all intents and purposes, (Detroit Lakes) converting two fourth downs and scoring on us in the final minute could’ve and should’ve been it,” Perham head coach Aron Velde said. “We held on for the miracle and got a little lucky with it. You’re never really out of it until the clock hits zero. That’s the best lesson we learned from that game.”
Fast forward a year, and these two teams are set to play again this Friday at Mollberg Field at Detroit Lakes high school. Detroit Lakes (3-0) looks like one of the top teams in the Midwest Red district so far, while Perham (2-1) is licking its wounds after its first loss of the season.
What stands out to me from last year are the parallels between these two programs and what the ending to the Battle for the Paddle presented each coach.
Second-year head coaches lead both teams. Detroit Lakes’ Reed Hefta and Perham’s Velde are the most recent names in a long line of successful coaches for both schools.
“I can’t say enough great things about Velde,” Hefta said. “He’s a fantastic coach, and he’s someone that I’ve stayed in contact with. As a coach, you go through a lot of things. It’s great to know another guy is in the same position as me at a neighboring school. We’re trying to help raise young men, and he’s doing the same things.”
There’s no bad blood in this rivalry, which is how it should be considering the stakes for each team. Perham and Detroit Lakes don’t share a section or a conference in most sports. For some sports, they co-op. Winning the paddle is about bringing your best against another team’s best.
“Reed and I have a really healthy thing between us,” Velde said. “We were just texting (Saturday), and I love that we can be competitors for 48 minutes a year, but we can be 21 miles apart from each other and willing to help each other out. There are 364 days and 21 hours our teams aren’t playing each other. It’s nice to have a guy go through the same stuff you are, and it makes the rivalry game healthier too. We aren’t bad-mouthing (Detroit Lakes) all week. We want to show up and play our best because we respect them.”
Rivalries are a part of any sport, which is why the Lakers’ loss against the Yellowjackets last year in such unfathomable fashion was so noteworthy. Kids are competitive and want to win and be a part of history. When that was snatched from the Lakers’ hands last fall, it presented an opportunity.
“That team was better than us for a play last year. It was a time of adversity for our players,” Hefta said. “Adversity is something we welcome because we can learn from it. The ending to that game last year challenged our kids with adversity. It’s something that kids can’t have enough of sometimes. People can get uncomfortable when they have to fight through things like adversity and doubt. It’s fun to be able to use it as a learning tool. Only seven teams finish the season happy with a state championship, but the lessons learned in sports carry on through life.”
One could argue that last year’s Battle for the Paddle couldn’t have come at a worse time for Perham. They had just lost to Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton 48-0 before a game against the only Class 4A school on their schedule.
“We got slaughtered by DGF the week before, so for us, everything the whole week was just focused on making sure that loss didn’t define our season,” Velde said. “The cards were stacked against us against DL, and I was proud of how we got the kids to rally around that message.”
One thing we can count on to be different in this year’s iteration of the Battle for the Paddle is the faces in key positions. Hackel, Richter, Peterson and Swiers, and many other names on both sides responsible for last year’s chaotic ending, have graduated.
“No matter who we’re playing, no matter where we’re playing, the football field is the same length and width,” Velde said. “There’s 11 of our guys and 11 of their guys on the field at the same time. The game is the game, and that’s what a young kid in a leadership role needs to realize. Football doesn’t care about a paddle or a trophy. The game is the game. You have to learn to just attack the preparation no matter who you’re playing. When you’re in the game, don’t go outside of yourself to add something to the story. It’s something these guys will become very good at over time. It’s just a matter of not letting the moment get too big.”
Friday’s final whistle will signal the midway point of the regular season, and another chapter will be written in this storied matchup.
“When you have these big games, you will have emotions at stake. You can play with emotion, but you don’t want to get emotional,” Hefta said. “If we want to be successful as a team, we have to take it easy–taking things step-by-step. The team comes first. We have to make sure that we work together and stay focused on what needs to be done to succeed as a team.”
“There’s going to be two coaching staffs on Friday that will try to get the ball in their athlete’s hands, and there are a lot of incredible athletes on these two teams. Defensively, it comes down to being sound and taking away those big-play opportunities when you can. It’s going to be a fun matchup.”