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The fall, and possible rise, of a small-town football team in Nye County

When four football players were hurt before halftime of Round Mountain High School’s opener against Carlin, the Knights were forced to forfeit and shortly thereafter canceled their second scheduled game.

But things weren’t quite over yet, as there was an effort by athletic director Jake Topholm and players to get more students to take the field and keep football alive at the school.

“We were trying to get more people to come out and play so at least we would have enough to continue our season,” said senior Christian Remigio, who played right guard and center for the Knights.

“I was optimistic because of the fact that toward the day of Top telling us our team was done we had enough players,” senior left guard/defensive end James Utterback said. “We got two extra players who just got their physicals done. We had a guy — Top busted his butt to get him a physical and everything so he could practice — then come that day at practice we had like five people padding out when we should have had everyone there. And Top’s like, ‘I can’t do this.’”

The notion that there were more players available but not at practice is not unique to Utterback.

“I wasn’t there that practice, but a lot of the players were talking about it,” freshman Graciel Sarmiento said. “I didn’t think we wouldn’t have a season.”

“After the first game we knew we were at risk of losing the team,” senior Colton Alstatt acknowledged. “Me and James actually tried to get people, and then people weren’t showing up to practices, and our athletic director walked in and said we were done.”

“It was the hardest decision I have had to make in 19 years,” Topholm said. “It was not an easy decision to make. I went back and forth with it for over a week. It came down to numbers and the safety of our kids.

“We need at least 12 and could not get there. We tried to play the Carlin game with 11 and did not even make it to halftime.”

“It was hard,” assistant coach Rickey Stewart said. “I hated seeing it. My son graduated last year, and I started coaching two years ago to be a part of it. These are such great kids. They make you feel young.”

The Knights played with 12 on the roster last season, going 2-7, but some of the players feel numbers were the effect, not the cause, of the problem and not the reason Stewart is coaching middle school players with Tyler Nelson this season instead of assisting Troy Davis coaching high school players.

“We got our butts kicked that first game because we didn’t have enough determination, and we didn’t practice hard enough,” Utterback said. “It wasn’t the fact that we were too bad. We were going to be a swell team. It was the fact that we didn’t come to practice, and we didn’t practice hard enough. We got hurt because we didn’t give it our all.”

Utterback strongly suggested that there is a serious lack of the mentality required to be a good football player, but at the same time, he understood why parents might be overly-cautious about sending their kids out onto the football field.

“How terrified would you be if your child walked up to you and said they want to go play high school football and we just lost five players in our first game?” he asked. “It would be terrifying to you as a parent. It’s understandable why a lot of people who were on the fence decided to back out.”

Bitterness and disappointment

But it’s hard for the Round Mountain seniors to shake the other side of the issue from their minds.

“It was more people not dedicating themselves to want to commit themselves to a team,” said Alstatt, who had another theory about trouble recruiting players.

“I think people were just too worried about their social status here and what other people think,” he said. “Since everybody does know each other, they’re too afraid of what he thinks about me and or what they think about me.”

And with the Knights going 2-7 last year and having players get hurt in their opener this year, did the prospect of joining a losing team have anything to do with that?

“Yes,” Alstatt said quickly. “Very much so.”

Until Topholm made his decision, Alstatt had maintained hope the Knights would find their way back to the field this season.

“After the first game, I had more of a drive to get the team together,” he said. “My senior year, don’t want to lose the team. This was my 10th year playing. I was expecting to have a season. I wasn’t expecting people just to stop practicing after that first game.”

But they did stop, and Topholm made the call.

“I went home and cried,” Alstatt said. “It sucked. A lot. Football has been a part of my life since third grade.”

“It was very disappointing,” Sarmiento said. “Your first year of high school, you come in expecting a new experience, and just to hear the season was called off was not what you want to hear at the time. It was heartbreaking and emotionally disappointing for me. Football is fun, and for it to be called off like that was disappointing.”

The decision hurt more because there was a lingering feeling that it didn’t have to be that way and the decision should not have had to be made.

“To be honest, I don’t think they did (have to cancel the season),” Sarmiento said. “Most of the kids weren’t injuries. Some of the kids, their parents didn’t want them to play. It wasn’t necessarily the injuries.”

“I’m not against anyone who didn’t come to practice,” Utterback said. “I’m not against people that never ended up showing up or those who played and then decided not to this year. Because what’s done is one. We can’t do anything about it. It’s your choice. It’s high school, it isn’t the rest of your life, and the possibility of getting hurt, especially after our first game, is really high.”

Still, the decision was tough to take, and the seniors said it would have hurt as much in any class year.

“It would have bothered me the same,” Utterback said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s my senior year. It would be someone’s senior year.”

Alstatt agreed.

“Once the team does get canceled it’s hard to get back in the league, so it affects the next two years below us,” he said. “So even if it wasn’t my last year, it would have affected us.”

Those who hope to be future Knights also felt it.

“It was kind of bad to hear, because the high school has so much school spirit and the senior class is a big part of the school spirit,” said eighth-grader Nick Scraper, a key player on the Round Mountain Middle School football team. “To see them not have a team like that just really brought down the mood of everybody here.”

“They saw it like they’re not going to have a team next year,” Nelson said of his players. “They were worried about it. They look up to the high schoolers, and they expect to play with them. I noticed it. They were scared.”

A hole at homecoming

At many schools, homecoming is a highlight of the fall. Even at schools with little or no alumni interest, there is usually a dance and events designed to increase school spirit leading up to a football game.

At Round Mountain, the big sporting event was a volleyball match. A small school doesn’t have many sports teams each season, and volleyball is the only other fall sports team the Knights have.

It wasn’t the same.

“We have a volleyball team, but it’s hard to get people to show up to that,” Nelson said. “My daughter plays on varsity, but Friday night football, with that being gone, it has made a difference in the town.”

“Not to take anything away from volleyball, but having a homecoming without a football game was hard for everybody,” Stewart added. “I know a lot of parents were upset, a lot of kids were upset.”

The middle school team had a game scheduled that week, but the numbers game isn’t only affecting Round Mountain. Smith Valley had to cancel the game, and the younger players lost a chance to offer the town a homecoming football game.

“These guys were upset, too, because Smith Valley didn’t have a junior high team, and that would have been something we could have done last Friday for homecoming,” Stewart said. “It felt weird.”

Not having a football game to go to did lead to a slight uptick in attendance for Round Mountain volleyball matches.

“We have had a few more people come watch our games, but it has been weird as a student to not see people walking around with their football jerseys on,” sophomore volleyball player Brooklyn Hanks said.

“Everyone’s more bored and doesn’t have anything to look forward to,” senior teammate Kayla Brown said. “People are more vocal because there’s no football team. Everyone comes here and they’re like, ‘Jack it up there!’”

Rowdy fans or not, there just is no substitute for a football game to cap homecoming week.

“It kind of shook everybody that we didn’t have a football team, because it’s football,” volleyball player Emma Jane Gines said. “Everybody has a football team, but we don’t.”

“Everyone likes to say homecoming isn’t really in the gym, it’s under the lights on the football field,” Sarmiento said. “And with no football, I think the town is missing a lot of spirit.”

Sarmiento not only thinks there should have been a varsity football team this fall but that it could have been a solid season.

“A good season?” he asked. “If we all gave it 110 percent, we would have had a great season.”

Future Knights keep playing

While some varsity players made it clear they feel some of their former teammates had no desire to give 110 percent, Scraper said the problem has filtered down to the middle school team.

“There are only four or five people on the team that are fully dedicated to the team, and that’s the reason we try so hard to motivate them so that they can try to be like we are,” he said. “I got here my sixth-grade year, a whole bunch of messing around, nobody wanted to do anything. Last year we did a little better, but this year the eighth-grade captains are fully focused on getting this team straight.”

Scraper is a no-nonsense type who gives you the impression he would bang down teammates’ doors and drag them out of bed for a 6 a.m. practice. If there is going to be a Round Mountain High School football team next fall, Scraper likely will be an important part of it, even as a freshman.

“I want to push everybody else on my team because next year I know I’m not going to be able to be out here to do it all the time because I’ll be in high school,” Scraper said. “I want them to walk away from this season knowing what it’s like to be a winner and not always have your head down because you didn’t do the best you could.”

The middle school team wrapped up its season Nov. 1 against Beatty, a 36-6 victory for the Knights, who finished 3-4, also defeating Eureka and Virginia City. In his third year of coaching, Nelson had 11 players on the roster this season but has had as many as 18. Round Mountain is a very transient place, he said.

“Because we’re out in the middle of nowhere we get a lot of people who move away who don’t like being away from civilization,” Stewart said. “We definitely have an attrition rate around here. A lot of people don’t want to move their families out here. It’s a big move to be away from everything, and the big one for a lot of families is not having a hospital within three hours of here.

“The ones that are here, they love it. Tyler and I help Topholm in baseball, and it’s fun. There’s no such thing as a short road trip, other than when we go to Tonopah.”

With eight of those 11 players in eighth grade, Nelson’s team has a size advantage over several opponents.

“We have a very strong running game,” he said. “We have pass option, but 80 percent of our football is running the ball. We have a strong fullback, so we run the middle quite a bit. Our speed is good. My main running back is an eighth-grader, Nick Scraper. He’s just a big eighth-grader who runs hard, and he runs strong. My fullback is actually my son, Blake, and he’s our first-down and 2-point conversion guy.”

The middle school team enjoys strong parental support, Nelson said, something that could play a key role in getting the high school team up and running again.

“I actually have a lot of great support from the parents,” he said. “The parents travel with us, there are at least five or six parents who try to make it to as many games as they can, and they usually follow me up and down the sidelines. They can’t sit still, either.”

With a large eighth-grade class and parents backing their kids playing football, there are strong hints that the high school team could be back on the field next season.

“I would say hopefully, yes,” Nelson said. “I’m pretty sure the eighth-graders that have been with me will play high school football, if nobody moves. That’s the biggest thing.”

The biggest thing they can’t control, that is. But the feeling around the school is that everything else points to the Knights playing again sooner rather than later.

“I think we’ve got a good shot it,” Stewart said. “Six or seven of these kids are coming up. There’s only three seniors that were left at the end. As long as we can get the other kids committed to come out, we can have a team. It will be hard, because I don’t think we’ll be able to qualify for anything postseason-wise.”

“Yes, we would have to play one year as an independent,” Topholm confirmed. “If we complete the schedule, we would be back in the league the following year.”

“I think there will be a team as well,” Utterback said. “I just think we’re going to be a nonleague team so we’re going to have to play out-of-league games. But if people see how much of a terrible year this was, they will understand our sorrow over this.”

Confidence for next season

But the players don’t seem to be worried about having no playoffs in 2020, perhaps aware the Knights have not qualified for postseason play since 2012, when they were in the Southern League.

“We have a lot of athletic eighth-graders coming up, and I’m pretty sure they’ll want to play,” Sarmiento said.

Scraper is even more confident.

“We have seven kids, and we’ve been telling everybody all year we’re going to do super good,” he said. “We’ve been pushing ourselves all year, trying to do the best we can for next year.”

“That’s what we need,” Stewart said of Scraper’s attitude. “In this day and age, when you’ve got a lot of video games going on, we definitely need kids like Nick who can pump everybody up.”

Utterback already has seen a sport canceled, as he wrestled for Round Mountain before that program disappeared, and he said he will play basketball this winter. Remigio plays baseball for the Knights. Alstatt has played basketball and run track, but he’s not certain about track this spring. “I think I might need a job,” he said.

But while this year’s seniors will don other Round Mountain uniforms before they graduate, nothing else is football. The size of the crowds, the week-long focus on one opponent, playing under the lights on a chilly night, the cheerleaders and the bands — although Round Mountain does not have the latter — make games an event. But Stewart said a lot more goes missing when a sport is removed from the calendar.

“It’s like I told my son, the thing about high school sports is, it’s not always about the game,” he said. “It’s about the camaraderie, it’s about the cohesion you get with these guys. If we’re not going to Tonopah it’s at least an eight-hour bus ride, and that’s the shortest ones. You get that time together, and you get a chance to know each other. And it keeps your grades up.”

Scraper said the junior high school team has had some of those elements this season.

“The middle school team usually hangs out,” said Scraper, who loves to talk about the one-handed interception he returned for a touchdown earlier this year. “We have (high school players) Koleby (Harmon) and Graciel and Cutter (Tran) that come out with us. The first league game we hung out all day before we went to Tonopah.”

With motivated young athletes such as Sarmiento and Scraper, with coaches such as Davis, Nelson and Stewart, and with a small town missing something without its Friday night lights, is there any doubt the Knights will be back?

“We plan on playing high school football next year,” Topholm said.

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