NATOMA — The round bales sat neatly in a line adjacent to the highway.
On that small two-lane road, semis and a few pickups traveled east and west along Kansas Highway 18.
Just up a small hill on the south side of the highway, a football field showing signs of the effects of the hot sun and windy conditions all too prevalent in the Sunflower State has only a few feet running around on it.
To be exact: 12 feet, bumping up to 16 feet if you count the two coaches and 18 if you add in a recent transfer student.
The sign on the north fence protecting the field from the highway explains why those players are out there: Forever Tiger.
It’s one thing to grow up in a small town. It’s another thing to compete on Friday night’s for that community.
That’s what the six players on the Natoma High School football team are doing this year.
It’s six players competing in six-man football. No subs. They pray for no injuries.
“It’s fun,” said sophomore quarterback Vaughn Stull. “For a lot of the people, and not just the football players, the people in the town didn’t think we were going to have a team either. You could kind of see a spark in everybody after they said we were going to have a football team. Everyone was a little bit happier. Everybody on the streets were just talking about football and all that.”
There are more boys in the high school in the small town located just inside the western edge of Osborne County. But a few chose to run only cross country. Others chose not to compete in a sport.
“I like to play for the school, because there’s not too many players,” said Bon Pongsuwan, the lone senior on the team. “I like to help the team out.”
Pongsuwan is one of the biggest players on the team, listed at 5-foot, 10-inches and weighing roughly 150 pounds.
Two others are “listed” as weighing 150 pounds as well. They’re the biggest on the team.
“Honestly, we’ll pull more size coming up next year,” said first-year coach Cody Dunlap. “I heard our principal talk that they probably lied on our programs, built us up a little bit, beefed us up a little bit on the programs. We don’t have anybody that is above 150. So we’re not very big. But as compared to 11-man, there’s not as many people on the field. But in that regard, the fundamentals are exactly the same.”
There are still the basics needed. And it still takes heart to compete on the field on Friday nights.
Until the six-man games crept into the northwest Kansas region of the state last year, Natoma — and a host of other small-town teams — would be left without much on Friday nights because of a lack of players.
“We’ve talked for awhile now, really since camp when we knew numbers were going to be low and with a new staff, we talked about starting over basically,” Dunlap said. “A new foundation, and it’s going to be really, really tough this year. And we’re going to play really, really hard this year because we do have a senior who doesn’t have another year left. But these kids that do have a year left, they know we have a good eighth-grade class on the way. And they’re trying to start something here.”
The roster consists of a freshman, four sophomores and the lone senior.
“I didn’t think we were going to have a team when we started,” Stull said. “I thought we were going to have to have eight. Then he said if we had six, we were going to play. Everyone got pretty excited about that. But it’s a lot of conditioning. You have to be in good shape.”
Dunlap knows about the struggles of playing sports in a small town. He’s actually a 2008 graduate of Natoma High School.
He sees similarities between his playing days and his first year as head coach.
“It absolutely is,” Dunlap said. “I told the kids that what I experienced is a lot of what is going on right now. Coach Crawford and I graduated in the same year. When we started as freshmen, a lot of underclassmen and very few upper classmen — and we only had 12 and played eight-man. By the time we were juniors and seniors, we had 20-plus kids on the team. There was just an excitement, and the kids saw the fun that we were having and the memories we were making, and they wanted to be a part of that. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do for these kids. We’ve talked forever about making memories. You’ll never forget this time.”
It’s not easy by any means for the Tigers. But the support is there. Despite playing on the road the first two games of the season, the Tigers’ fans traveled well.
“We played two hours away, which is quite a drive for us,” said Dunlap, whose team is scheduled to play its first home game this year on Friday against Pawnee Heights. “We had a sideline full. I told the kids that football for some of them is what gets them wound tight. That’s what brings it out of them. So for these six kids, it gives them something to do and gets them excited. On (Sept. 1), it was their decision — I had the administration on our sideline and he said it was up to you — and when our lone senior went down, it was the other five kids that said they wanted to play some more. That was really a prideful moment for us.”
The first two weeks resulted in losses for the out-manned Tigers.
“It’s tough because we’re out there doing stretches or something and they’ll be way louder than us,” Stull said about opponents. “In your head, you’re like, ‘Woah, this is going to be tough and it’s going to be tiring.’ ”
Dunlap knew numbers were going to be sparse this year during camps. But that didn’t weigh on his mind — or the players’ minds — about if they wanted to throw in the towel.
“He’s a big believer in getting better every day and working your hardest,” Stull said about his coach. “If you don’t try your hardest, you’re never going to get better.”
That ability to try and learn is something Dunlap is proud of in his tiny squad. So there he is, among the few players he has on the dried out buffalo grass on the hard-packed ground behind the home bleachers, pushing the kids every day in practice.
“It came back to that time, and I half expected when we only had five and had to play five on six that they were going to say, ‘Let’s go hit the showers,’ ” Dunlap said about the first game of the season. “And they didn’t. That, if nothing else positive happened, I would have been happy. No, the score didn’t turn out. … I do think the scoreboard will start to turn in our favor, and I do think we will compete — and we expect to compete. But they know they’re playing football and making memories. We’re measuring things right now than other on the scoreboard.”
Having the small amount of players the Tigers do this year makes practices difficult. Instead of being able to scrimmage with an offense and a defense, coaches will have to work with half of the line and put the other three players on defense for contact drills.
While it might be a long road for the players this year, they take pride in the fact they are playing for the school and the town.
“It’s very important,” Pongsuwan said. “A very small kid can watch us play so they can learn more. They like to play, so they can play like the high school plays.”
“Whether it was something we shouldn’t have said and we did, we told them this is going to be a tough year and that they are going to take lumps,” Dunlap said. “But it’s going to be worth it. The kids know that what they do this year might be the hardest stepping stone in getting to where we want to go. But I’m confident that we’re beginning to understand the progression.”
The past few seasons, Natoma has had to forfeit a few games due to lack of numbers. This year, the Tigers hope to make the full seven-game schedule.
“I hope that if people come to see what this is about, if they watch us, I hope they always see that we’re giving 100-percent effort and we never give up,” Dunlap said.