Superior senior football player Lars Olson said it was early August when it finally started to dawn on him that the Spartans wouldn’t be playing football this fall.

So he and a handful of his teammates did the next best thing by cheering on neighboring Northwestern this fall, while the Spartans wait their turn to play football in the spring.

Olson will be in attendance at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23, when Northwestern (3-1) plays host to unbeaten Spooner (4-0) in a Heart O’ North Conference game in Maple.

“I just started to picture it, that this wasn’t going to happen,” said Olson, a 6-foot, 195-pound defensive end. “The mood was just … not really let down. We just really wished it would have happened, especially after watching what Northwestern has done, but there’s still hope for us to have a great season in the spring.”

Carter Fonger, right, places a tiger head on Lars Olson Wednesday, Oct. 21, outside of the NBC Spartan Sports Complex at Superior High School. The Spartan football players have been lending their support to the Northwestern Tigers since they aren't playing football until the spring. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Carter Fonger, right, places a tiger head on Lars Olson Wednesday, Oct. 21, outside of the NBC Spartan Sports Complex at Superior High School. The Spartan football players have been lending their support to the Northwestern Tigers since they aren't playing football until the spring. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Newsletter signup for email alerts

And you can bet some Northwestern Tigers will return the favor by cheering on the Spartans should that spring season occur.

But in the year of COVID-19, who knows?

Olson is a multisport athlete. He is a power forward in basketball and doubles player in tennis, safe to say a rarity for linemen types. He had just finished basketball practice Tuesday night when he was reached by phone; he described the practice more like an open gym, there’s just so much uncertainty going on.

“Even the winter sports are in question,” Olson said. “We haven’t really gotten a full A-OK for basketball — that we’re for sure going. But in the fall, it was tough. We thought this would just end in the spring with those sports, but to see it go into fall, it was definitely a mood changer, for sure.”

Idea becomes reality

Olson, who went to elementary school in the Maple School District, said he and his buddies talked about going to the Tigers’ football games for a while.

“It was just an idea, but once we officially got the word that our season wasn’t happening, we found out that Northwestern’s was,” Olson said. “We just decided that 'Hey, let’s do this.' We’ve never really had the opportunity to cheer on another football team because we’re playing at the same time. But this fall, we decided to go cheer them on because we really have nothing else to do for sports and stuff. I know most of the team (members), so it’s really cool actually getting to see them play.”

Just a few days before Northwestern’s home opener Oct. 2 against Bloomer, Olson texted his buddy Dylan Ronchi, a senior Northwestern defensive back and wide receiver, asking, “How would you guys feel if we came out?”

Ronchi said “Go for it.”

“I think it’s amazing. The more fans we can get, the better,” Ronchi said. “This is good for them. They can enjoy their last year of football. They don’t know if they’re going to have a season. They don’t know how many games they’re going to be guaranteed to play, so it’s nice to have them come out and enjoy their last year of football. This is their last hoorah, and they’re going to try to enjoy it any way they can.”

While one might think it would be painful — watching and not playing — Ronchi said during a pandemic like this, it can actually be therapeutic.

“It’s just a great opportunity for them,” Ronchi said. “If we didn’t have a season, it would just be both of our schools being bummed out there is no football. I play baseball in the spring, but we don’t have games on Friday, and we’re going to get a crew together and cheer them on, just the same.”

These programs aren’t just close in terms of distance — 21.5 miles via U.S. Highway 2 — but in historical context as well.

Superior football coach Bob DeMeyer and former Superior activities director Ray Kosey both coached Northwestern.

DeMeyer didn’t know his players were attending Northwestern games until recently, but he was all for it.

“I’m not surprised,” DeMeyer said. “We have such a super group of leaders and really outstanding young people. So, when they’re missing out on playing the game right now, it’s a great way to get their fix. Supporting our neighbors down the highway makes sense, and the Tigers have a pretty special team again. Our staff follows them on iFan.tv, and we’re sure rooting them.”

Enjoying fall, hoping for spring

Northwestern football coach Jovin Kroll said he feels bad for Superior’s players, having to watch when others around them are playing. Truth be told, Kroll wouldn’t mind some of them suiting up for him. These are some good football players, a couple good programs, with the Spartans also expecting a good season.

It would be a shame if Superior doesn’t play football this school year. For every high school football player, the fall of their senior year is the pinnacle of everything they worked for, homecoming being the proverbial icing on the cake. So many are being robbed of that experience right now, but it’s really hard to argue with a district for erring on the side of caution, especially if numbers spike.

“That part of my life is gone,” said Superior running back and linebacker Carter Fonger. “Football is my favorite thing to do, fall my favorite time of the year. The one thing that is cool about it is that I’ve never been able to watch from the stands, so it’s a different perspective. We’re pretty close with most of them, so they don’t mind.”

Fonger wants to play college football. The senior has strength and speed to boot. But it's hard to get a highlight tape out when you’re not playing, and if Fonger can’t make Friday’s Northwestern game, it will be because he had to leave early the next day to attend a combine in Waukesha, trying to get something — anything — to show scouts in the era of COVID.

Friday night lights in the spring would feel different, but Fonger would gladly take it. He’s also a sprinter on the track team but thinks he can manage both. He likes cheering on the Tigers and hopes they do the same, should Superior have a spring season.

“We’re all pretty much the same,” he said.

Superior and Northwestern are different sized schools with students from different backgrounds. Northwestern, like Greenway in Minnesota, is a collection of small communities, including Maple, Popler, Iron River, Lake Nebagamon and the like.

While they might schedule each other for junior varsity or freshman football games, Superior and Northwestern don’t play each other in high school football, so you don’t see the same kind of rivalry between them like you would with other neighboring schools and towns. Sure, over the years, there may have been tension when paths crossed and country came to town, city slickers vs. hicks from the sticks — that sort of thing — but usually nothing too heated.

“That’s kind of been the perception, but really, we don’t see it that way,” Olson said. “We’re welcomed when we go there. Everyone enjoys having us there. We root for them, and I’m sure they’d root for us. I don’t really see a rivalry. That’d be a great tradeoff if they came and watched our games. That’d be really cool. We’re really enjoying it and having a good time there.”

A lot of the players have become friends through other sports, like baseball and track.

Superior players even put on Northwestern colors the other day, trading their Columbia blue and white for black and gold. Olson asked some of his Northwestern friends for gear, and they obliged with sweatshirts, T-shirts and bucket hats.

“We want to be one with the fans,” Olson said. “Even though we’re from Superior, we’re not going to come in there wearing all Superior gear all the time. We want to be one with them, so that’s what we do.”

Ronchi has heard the stories of old. His father, Matthew, played for the Tigers in the early 90s, but in these days, in these parts, it’s OK to be Northwestern and Superior.

“When my dad played, they were called Cowpie High and everything else,” Ronchi said. “Maybe there was, I don’t know, a little aggression between the two schools, but now, we’re pretty much just best friends. We hang out all the time, us and Superior, and there’s really no hatred between the two schools, just friendship.”