The Northfield Raiders won their one and only state football championship at the Metrodome on Nov. 22, 1997, by defeating Detroit Lakes 28-0. But Bubba Sullivan, a 1985 graduate of Northfield High School now in his 24th year of coaching football at NHS, told me that a lot of people will say that the state championship game was actually played at Bruce Smith Field in Faribault on Nov. 1 of that year. He considers it one of the most memorable victories of his coaching career.
“It’s the Battle of Rice County!” proclaimed the headline of the Northfield News of Oct. 31, 1997, in a preview story by Scott King. The Class 4A, Section 1 title clash featured two powerhouse teams that were mirror images of each other. The no. 3 ranked Northfield Raiders (8-1), champs of the Missota Conference, were averaging 34 points and 321.8 yards of offense, with the no. 2 ranked Faribault Falcons (9-0), champs of the Big 9 Conference, averaging 32.1 points and 336.6 yards of offense per game. Their defenses had allowed only an average of 5.7 points per game (Faribault) and 9.6 points per game (Northfield) from opponents.
The Falcons, coached by Rich Oliphant (134-83 win-loss record, then in his 24th year), had their first unbeaten season since 1976 and were hoping to make it to their first ever state tournament. The Raiders, under coach Bubba Sullivan (67-34, with a playoff record of 22-7), were looking for their fifth straight state tournament appearance. And despite their recent successes, the Raider seniors were looking for something else against Faribault: gaining bragging rights dating back to middle school days.
Matt Geiger, the Raiders’ versatile “go-to” player who still holds records from that 1997 season, spoke to me of the special group of Northfield teammates he had been part of and the rivalry that existed between the two schools.
“We were just a bunch of little kids running around playing with each other. We grew up together and we were all friends. Hard to believe you could have 50 kids that age that could all be friends – we all got along well.”
Fifty? Really? Yes, he said, starting in 6th grade and ending up with maybe 20 seniors who played together on the high school football team. “We weren’t just friends during the football season, we were friends year round and did a lot of stuff together.”
And what made this group so special? Without a pause, Geiger said, “Just the desire to win. We didn’t ever like to lose.” And Faribault had the only team that had beaten them in middle school, not just once, but three years in a row.
Sullivan told me Geiger and his classmates were good, all-around athletes who had fun in practice but “played against each other really hard.” Sullivan explained that sometimes there are teams that don’t play well against each other in practice, but “these guys would knock each other down, laugh about it, get back up and do it again. They were a very competitive group, close-knit.”
So the 1997 “Battle of Rice County” was a day of reckoning for the Raiders of the senior class who hoped to settle a score with the neighboring town, even though it had been ten years since varsity teams had clashed. (Despite their proximity, Northfield and Faribault varsity teams were in different conferences, with Northfield usually having only one non-conference game to start the season. As of this year, Northfield is 5A and Faribault 4A, so they are now not even in the same class.)
Faribault had won the last varsity game played in 1987 by a score of 26-7 and had won nine of the previous 11 meetings, with Northfield’s last win being a 6-0 shutout in 1986. For this 1997 match-up, Northfield’s allotment of 600 tickets was gone in half an hour.
The Raiders went into this “game of the decade” with only one loss, a non-conference home game against Wisconsin’s eventual state champion, Menomonie, a loss which still rankles Geiger. “We should have beat them!” he declared. But, “I know we learned one thing in that game, that we were very good.” The Raiders fell short 20-13, despite dominating the second half.
After a close win 14-7 over Red Wing, the Raiders barreled over Farmington 47-19 and Prior Lake 34-6, followed by shutouts of New Prague (36-0) and Shakopee (41-0), with a 44-20 victory over Benilde-St. Margaret’s and another shutout 31-0 over previously undefeated Hutchinson to win the Missota Conference title. In the semi-finals, the Raiders disposed of Owatonna 46-14 with Geiger becoming Northfield High’s all-time leading scorer (he continues to hold the record of 268 points scored from 1995-97). The Falcons had defeated Red Wing 36-7 to set up the highly anticipated game with the Raiders.
The Raiders started the scoring with a 12-play, 72-yard drive, which concluded with an 11-yard touchdown reception by Hans Bengtson from quarterback Jason Holm for a 7-0 lead. Faribault came back with an 11-play, 63-yard drive, with running back Chris Kern rushing for 26 yards and scoring a touchdown from four yards out with 15 seconds left in the quarter. A try for two points failed, leaving the score 7-6. Kern burned the Raiders again with 2:49 left in the half when he caught a perfectly thrown 83-yard touchdown pass from Falcon quarterback Brent Peroutka. The two-point conversion failed, so the Raiders were down 12-7 at halftime. But Geiger told me no one on the team was feeling down about the score because “we knew we were going to score more than the 12 they had.” Sullivan told a reporter that his team was not fazed by that big pass play with another half still ahead. “We made some adjustments and the kids came out and played good football in the second half.”
It was a big play of the Raiders in the third quarter that turned the game around. Scott King wrote in his Northfield News account of Nov. 5, 1997: “On the night after Halloween, Northfield’s trick was no treat for Faribault” as Sullivan “reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out something sweet: a fake punt on fourth-and-three that resulted in a 31-yard run by Phil Remes, setting up the Raiders’ go-ahead touchdown and a 15-12 lead.”
Sullivan told me this was not a new play. “Our assistant coach at the time Clay Anderson brought that fake punt in several years before and I remember we had run it in different games for a few years. We would snap to what is called the personal protector and he would run up and tuck it in between the legs of another guy near the line of scrimmage and then everyone would run to the left, and that guy would wait, wait, wait, then he’d run to the right. I never thought it would work.” But it had worked before and worked again at this “key time in the game” against Faribault, keeping the drive alive and leading to a touchdown run four plays later by Holm and a two-point conversion.
King wrote that Raider punter Hans Bengtson “leaped and faked like the snap had gone over his head” as punter-protector Colin Perkins got the snap and “tucked the ball into the hands of Remes.” Remes later said, “I got a little too nervous and went a little early, but it worked out OK. It was an awesome feeling when I saw how much (open) field I had.”
Brad Uecker’s kickoff pinned Faribault deep in its own territory. Geiger (at defensive end) intercepted a pass, headed for the end zone but fumbled at the one-yard line. Geiger told me, “That was kind of excitement and failure at the same time! We just got lucky enough that Colin Perkins (at safety) was there to recover it in the end zone,” creating the Raiders lead of 22-12.
The Falcons had three second-half turnovers, the second of which led to six more Raider points in the last quarter. The final scoring drive of 63 yards in seven plays was highlighted by two passes from Holm to Bengtson, a 41-yard pass and an eight-yard touchdown pass to complete the scoring at 28-12 when the extra point kick was missed.
The Raiders had their fifth straight sectional title and a state quarterfinal berth against number 5 ranked Fairmont, while the Falcons closed out only their third unbeaten regular season in school history at 9-1. After their elimination by the Raiders, the Faribault team signed and sent over a letter to the Northfield High team wishing them good luck in the state playoffs. Sullivan told me he thought this was a “very classy” thing for coach Oliphant and the Falcons to do and showed the feelings of respect and sportsmanship between the two rival teams. The letter was put up in the locker room.
Geiger said he still knows a few of the Faribault players. I asked him, “Do you give them a hard time?” He answered, with a smile, “It still gets brought up in conversation sometimes.”
The state quarterfinal game at Fairmont started off with a bang for both teams. Geiger scored on a Northfield High record-breaking 84-yard punt return. Geiger remembers that the ball hit him and he dropped it at first. “Then I picked it up and scored on it. Kind of a weird play. Usually once you drop a punt, the other team recovers it.”
Fairmont responded with a 49-yard Cardinal touchdown run for a 7-7 tie in the first quarter. A second quarter field goal gave Fairmont a 10-7 lead but Bart Wiese took the ensuing kickoff 50 yards and Uecker’s 22-yard field goal tied the game at 10-10. After the Raiders took the ball back at midfield, Holm hit Bengtson for 16 yards and then threw a 35-yard “hail Mary” pass which was tipped in the end zone and caught by Jeremiah Smith with seven seconds left in the half to put the Raiders up 17-10. Sullivan remembers that Smith “caught it after it bounced off one or two guys” and “that just got us a ton of momentum going into halftime.” In the second half the Raiders added a 21-yard TD run by Huebner and two scores from Bengtson (on a 9-yard pass reception and 45-yard interception return) for a final score of 38-10 and a return to the Metrodome for a Class 4A semifinal game against No.1 ranked Spring Lake Park (11-0).
It was the first-ever meeting of the Raiders and Spring Lake Park Panthers. Both teams had lost the previous year to Mora – the Panthers in the sectional finals and the Raiders in the state championship game (a close 7-3 contest). As expected, the game was a defensive battle for teams which had allowed only 9.8 points per game (Raiders) and 11.5 (Panthers). Spring Lake Park scored on a 50-yard first quarter interception run and Northfield tied the game 7-7 just before the half after a Panther fumble near the goal. Another Panther fumble after halftime led to a five-yard pass from Holm to Geiger for a 14-7 lead. In the fourth quarter Geiger carried the ball over the goal line for a 21-7 lead. A score by the Panthers cut the lead to 21-14, but Huebner recovered a fumble on the Panthers’ next possession and Uecker kicked a 37-yard field goal for the final score of 24-14. Spring Lake Park came in averaging 33.5 points per game and over 380 yards of offense but was held to 135 yards, 14 points and only four first downs by the Raiders. It was Sullivan’s 70th win at NHS against 34 losses.
The Raiders’ opponent in the 4A state championship game at the Metrodome was Detroit Lakes, whose 1997 season record of 11-1 was marred by only one overtime loss 27-20 to Thief River Falls. Detroit Lakes had beaten Northfield twice before: 21-14 in the 1993 state championship and 32-26 in the 1995 state semifinals. Geiger and his teammates were eager to take on the Lakers again, with a different outcome in mind.
The Raiders had also had been stung by two close losses in finals to Sartell (24-21) in 1994 and to Mora (7-3) in 1996. Sullivan said there was therefore a “little extra pressure” on this 1997 team to win the championship.
The Northfield News headline of Nov. 26, 1997, said it all: “Elation, at last! Raiders Beat DL 28-0 for first-ever state title.” Scott King wrote, “Geiger, the team’s primary game-breaker, tension-breaker and free spirit, again ignited the Raiders (12-1) with three touchdowns while running for a team high 90 yards on 14 carries.”
The Raiders mounted a six-play, 58-yard drive, on their first possession which ended with a 29-yard touchdown run by Geiger. Geiger’s second touchdown, after a Matt Faust interception, was a 9-yard TD run in a 30-yard drive in the second quarter, making it 14-0 at halftime. Faust pounced on a quarterback fumble in the third quarter and returned the ball 39 yards for a touchdown to make the score 21-0. A fumble on the ensuing kickoff recovered by Andy Collins led to the third Geiger touchdown run of two yards (tying a school record of 33 career rushing touchdowns) and the final 28-0 tally. Defense had been the key again, as Detroit Lakes was held scoreless. Huebner had stopped the Lakers’ leading pass catcher Reid Whitworth from catching a single pass and the Lakers completed only two plays of 15 yards or more.
Geiger told me that his team had been confident of victory: “We felt that whenever we played, nobody could beat us.” Even if a penalty was called, Geiger would tell the team, “It doesn’t matter, we’ll get ten yards the next play to make up for it.” Sullivan noted that these good athletes were also smart players, who understood the game and could make suggestions about plays and make good on-field decisions. The team had great leadership, with Holm as quarterback (and linebacker) and Geiger playing almost everything else. Sullivan said Geiger was an “amazing player” at positions of running back, defensive end, kick and punt returner and as receiver with a knack for “making a big play at the right time. And he did it game after game.” Sullivan also noted that while his current Raider team has 60 juniors and seniors, this team had around 35 and “really had to lean on each other a little bit more.”
Some of the Raiders’ confidence came from having played before at the Metrodome, a “great experience” which actually “took their breath away” when they first took the field in 1993, according to Sullivan. “They would just be dead tired after warm-ups because they were so excited” to play inside this rather overwhelming home of the Vikings. So in subsequent appearances, Sullivan told me, “We really tried to teach the kids to slow down, just take it in and enjoy it, rather than being so pumped up that by the time warm-ups are over you are sweating too much.” Playing inside when the team had been used to playing outside in the cold meant keeping the team hydrated more, as well.
Sullivan said the team also had to adjust to an “incredible” noise level. Even though there were fewer spectators for high school contests at the dome than for a Vikings game, Sullivan said communicating was a struggle and the team would practice at St. Olaf playing a stereo full blast while the offense was trying to call signals “so they could understand how loud it would be.”
Even though that championship season was 15 years ago, Geiger told me that it is still “something that gets brought up in conversations.” After high school, Geiger worked for a construction company and has now worked for five years at Malt-O-Meal. He and his wife Abby (NHS Class of ‘97) live in Northfield with their two boys, Jake (6) and Ben (3).
“It just means a lot, what we did not only for our team but for Bubba. He deserves that more than anybody did. He’s built quite a program for Northfield.” Geiger commended the positive approach Sullivan took. Even after the opening loss to Menomonie, during film sessions, “he never would point out negative things. Everything was the positive, what you did good, maybe you could work on this, you did it right but we need to make it a little bit better.”
Sullivan told me, “We’ve always tried to coach from a positive standpoint, knowing the kids are going to perform better when they’re being built up than torn down.” His coaching philosophy, which he learned from his father Bob Sullivan (long-time Carleton football coach) and his high school hockey coach John McNamara, is that while “we want them to work hard, to be disciplined,” playing high school football is “supposed to be fun…We’re not getting ready for the pros, we’re not trying to win the Super Bowl, kids aren’t getting paid to play.” And “the kids should still come out with something from the program that they learned beyond winning or losing.”
Geiger told me that as a coach, Sullivan “did an extremely good job of getting the players to get along, to like each other, to compete against each other in a friendly way.” Geiger said, “You don’t realize it when you’re 18 years old but he teaches you way more than just about football…It didn’t matter who you were on our team, everybody was treated the same.” And that lesson is “going to help you out in the future with everything you do.”
As for the idea that as long as you do your best and play your hardest, winning is not everything, Geiger laughed and said his coach may have said that, but “To us, it was!” And he suspects, knowing Sullivan to be a competitive person, it is to him, too.
“I enjoy seeing him,” Geiger said of Sullivan. “He’s a good person. I can’t think of anything bad to ever say about him. I hope he’s still coaching there when my boys get there. That would be a great thing to have for them.”
So, having conducted this interview at the Geiger home, I asked 3-year-old Ben (“almost four!”) if he would like to play football as his dad did.
“Yeah!“ Ben said with some enthusiasm, but then reconsidered. “I’m going to be in hockey now!”
Six-year-old Jake proclaimed he liked baseball.
“I guess I can’t convince them to be football players,“ I told their father.
Geiger answered: “They will be! They haven’t had a chance to play yet.” If they do, and play like their dad, Northfield High may need to make more space for championship trophies.
Thanks to Matt Geiger and Bubba Sullivan for their memories, and to Gayle Collins for photos and publicity from that state title season of 1997.