Otis' Jack Willeke snares this long pass against the defense of Stratton's Avery Archuleta in the second half of the teams' semifinal game in the six-man playoffs Nov. 19 in Stratton.
STRATTON – On the Eastern Plains, football is a special breed of cat.
Or eagle, as the case may be.
Tucked away north of Interstate 70, an hour or so east of Limon and two or so stops away from the Kansas state line sits the town of Stratton. It occupies a half a square mile of land and is home to 658 people and 175 businesses.
More than 450 people work in town. Some of the larger industries in town? Pumpkin patches, professional services and crop preparation services. There are Realtors and dentists, a post office, a bank and a hotel. There’s an auto parts store, three restaurants and a combo inn and winery. An RV park occupies space on a county road.
One-tenth of 1 percent of the town’s population plays at any one time on the high-school football team, one that residents parents and alumni have rallied around for years.
“The whole town comes to watch them,” said head football coach and Stratton alum Jesse McConnell. “They see them at the gas station. They’re always asking the kids how the season is going. They are really invested in Stratton football, and that’s great to see.”
Before you ever arrive in town, one thing you notice is the high school’s mascot.
He (or she) is all over the town’s business pages – automotive businesses, health care, restaurants. The names, addresses, phone numbers, they’re all there.
So is the eagle.
There are well-wishes from the city on a billboard just south of downtown. At the corner of Interstate 70 and state U.S. Highway 24 sits an open field. During postseason play, you’ll find decals, wishing the involved team well in its upcoming game.
“They hang green-and-white flags up and down Main Street,” said former Stratton football coach Dave Gottmann. “The parents cook breakfast for the kids four hours before the game. That’s carried on for years. A group of parents used to have Thursday night dinners before the games. These are traditions that have been carried on for 20 or 30 years. Depending on who’s driving the driving, an ambulance will sound the siren when Stratton scores a touchdown.”
“We have had much success on the gridiron practically the entire time I’ve lived here,” said Rod Thompson, who graduated from Stratton High School in 1983. “Of course, there were a few down years, but we always seemed to field a pretty solid team. I still have high-school classmates and teammates that follow the current team. They constantly ask if we will win state this year, or how we played the previous week and how our upcoming opponent is. So yes, even after they leave school and settle in larger metropolitan areas or even move out of state, many alumni still follow the team on a consistent basis.”
“Stratton football has always been like this,” McConnell said. “It’s great to see.”
Thompson, the team’s statistician (his wife is the team photographer), played 11-man football in his day. The year after he graduated, the Eagles played eight-man ball. Six-man football started in 2012.
Thompson’s children are married and have started their own families. One of his sons, Trey, is an assistant football coach. Three of the football coaches are SHS alums, including McDonnell. He and Thompson, the Eagles’ offensive coordinator, were in the same high-school graduating class in 2011. Coach Chris Hornung graduated from Stratton two years before that. One of the assistant coaches at Otis High School, the Eagles’ opponent in the semifinal round, is a graduate of Stratton High School.
Trey Thompson and his wife also coach the high-school and middle-school girls basketball teams. Rod Thompson’s other son lives in Cheyenne. His daughter is attending medical school in Kansas City “but they will usually watch the games on the NFHS (National Federation of High Schools) network.”
That’s not all.
“My wife and I also have an exchange student from Madrid, Spain, that is playing on this year’s team, and his family will also watch every game via NFHS,” Rod Thompson said. “The family from Spain say that the experience their son has here is second to none. They all feel he is so lucky to have gotten to be involved with such a supportive community.”
Corey Wedel has some history at Stratton, too. He is a former coach and defensive coordinator for 10 years, during which the Eagles won a state title and finished second. He’s also the school’s agriculture education teacher, the school’s Future Farmers of America Advisor (24 years running) and the team’s public-address announcer.
Wedel graduated from Burlington High School in 1993. His son, Braden, was the Eagles’ place-kicker from 2019 to 2021.
“The four guys who run the chains (the chain gang) for the games are all former SHS football players,” he said. “The community of Stratton has quite a few alumni living in the area. They have kids in school.”
“I think everyone that lives in Stratton currently or has lived here in the past has so much pride in the town.,” Rod Thompson said. “I have had many people that I went to high school with, or had graduated before or after me from Stratton that moved away, but would come back for homecoming say that they wish their kids had the same opportunities that these kids still living here have.”
“Like all places, graduates leave and find careers in other cities and states,” Wedel added. “But they still come back to Stratton for things like homecoming, significant sports games, holidays, visits to family, etc. Because Stratton is a farming community, there are always family members who return to the farm-and-ranch operation.”
Gottmann grew up in Littleton and went to Heritage High School.
“I never understood homecoming,” he said. “In a small town, a thousand people will show up for a free barbecue. At homecoming, the 10-year classes? Every single graduate will come back. At 20, it’s about 80 percent.”
Wedel offered one more note.
“The current math teacher and high-school head track coach were high-school sweethearts in the late 1990s,” he said. “Now, they have three kids – one each in high school, middle school and elementary school. Stratton’s community even has graduates from nearby rivals Flagler, Hi-Plains and Burlington schools in our community. And now, they proudly wear the Eagle green and white.
The school and sports
Stratton, with an enrollment of fewer than 50 students, is home to a consistently good football team. Gottmann thought five Eagles’ teams did not qualify for postseason football in the last 40 years.
The rallying point this year is the Eagles’ trek through the six-man football playoffs. Stratton was the top seed.
When the game starts, some people sit in the stands; a good many don’t and sit on the field. Still more park their cars behind a fence on the north side of the field – locals said the cars started showing up two or three days before the Nov. 19 semifinal game -- where, minus the chain-link nature of the fence, the view is pretty good.
“It’s a social event,” Gottmann said. He is the timekeeper for nearby Bethune High School, about 10 miles east of town. “Everyone is fired up. People are roaming the sidelines. In a small town, you are on the sideline. You aren’t more than 10 feet from the game.”
“Stratton parents, grandparents, fans, friends, family and teachers travel to road games very consistently, even if it means driving three or more hours,” said Wedel, who is an agriculture teacher at SHS, the school’s Future Farmers of America advisor (24 years running) and the football team’s public address announcer.
The fan support is consistent, even in lean years.
“One of the best seasons I coached, we went 3-5 and didn’t make the playoffs,” Gottmann said. “The kids were great, they did everything. And we had the fan support. When they get to the playoffs, you see all the people show up, and you haven’t seen them for years.”
Wedel said the support has been strong since the late 1980s or early 1990s. The Eagles’ first state title was in 1992 “and a few of the players are still in the community with kids of their own.” Stratton won four state titles in eight-man football from 1992 to 1995. The Eagles also won 48 straight games. Gottmann was one of the team’s assistant coaches in 1992.
“Stratton is definitely a football town, and many of our high-school players have dreamed about playing for the Eagles and winning a state championship since they were in elementary school,” Wedel said. “Our community loves supporting football, but they support all the other sports, too.
“Volleyball has been really good recently with three consecutive trips to the state tournament. Baseball had a great stretch back in 2010-2012, winning three straight championships,” he added. “Girls and boys both have golf teams now.” He is the boys coach.
The rules for six-man football are a little different. The field is smaller – 80 yards wide and 40 yards long. Teams have to gain 15 yards for a first down, not 10. There are no “direct” runs. The quarterback can rush if there is a “clean exchange” from another player.
Everyone on the offense can catch a forward pass – yes, even those on the offensive line. Field goals are worth four points instead of three. A kicked point-after touchdown is worth two points; a successful run or pass play on a PAT is worth one point.
Stratton averaged almost 58 points a game through the first 12 on the schedule. The Eagles’ opponent in the semifinals, Otis High School, is no stranger. The two teams played earlier in the season, and Stratton won by more than 40 points.
Rushing the ball is key. In those first 12 games, the Eagles averaged 11.5 yards per carry and scored 73 touchdowns. Alex Cruz, he of 1,514 rushing yards this season, averages almost 15 yards per carry.
He’s also scored 41 touchdowns, including four in a lopsided, 46-13 semifinal round win over Otis High School Nov. 19.
“The boys have been here quite a bit. They didn’t overlook anybody and were ready to play,” coach Jesse McConnell said. “That was good. We have a good pass rush. Still, they want to run the ball, too, so we were ready for that.”
The win pushed the Eagles into the state six-man finals.
“These boys set out on a mission,” McConnell said. “They have had this championship on their minds from almost exactly a year ago. They are free-playing, that’s for sure.”
“I kept thinking, ‘These are the good old days,” Gottmann said of his time as Eagles’ head football coach. “I was blessed with good kids. A lot of people complained about our sports programs. But I think it’s harder academically at Stratton. A teacher who transferred to Stratton told me he couldn’t believe how competitive the kids were in class.”
Three alums on the coaching staff – all within two years of each other – are special to McConnell.
“When we wore the green and white and played on this very field, to come back and be able to coach for this town and for these kids means a lot,” McConnell said. “This is my seventh year overall and my second as the head coach. I went to Western State (in Gunnison) and played football for five years. In didn’t want to grad school, so I came back, got a good job.”
“Even when our teams, whether it be football, basketball, baseball, whatever sport it may be aren’t contending for state title, the fans and community still show up for the games and are there to support the kids. Our entire community takes pride in our school and its sport teams, FFA program, and all other extracurricular activities we offer,” Rod Thompson said. “While the kids are in school -- and especially once they graduate -- they all want to our town and the school to be known as the best small school in the state.”
“In a small town, it’s a social gathering,” Gottman said. “Everyone in the town is involved, whether they are involved with the school or not. They have something in common. A lot of them went to school there. So at the game, they are talking on the sidelines. They are talking in the stands.
“It’s something for people to feel good.”
“It is just different because kids can do every sport basically or be part of any activity they choose.” Rod Thompson added. “I feel very fortunate that I gave my kids the chance to grow up here, and I hope the tradition continues.”
“I wasn’t ready to give up football yet,” McConnell said. “I got into it. Now, I’m stuck, I guess. I’m really enjoying it. I enjoy being around the kids. I love it.”