by Eric Oslund
Rivalry games always seem to bring a little extra something to the table. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but you can feel it while witnessing it happen. Fans seem to cheer louder, players run faster and hit harder, and the tension never ends. From the moment all the players take the field with hopes of earning bragging rights to the moment one team leaves with their hearts broken, anything is possible.
So when the Rogers Royals, who were 3-2 on the season at the time, hosted Elk River on Friday, Oct. 6, it didn’t matter that the Elks were undefeated, the No. 1 ranked team in Class 5A, or that they were the defending state champions. All that mattered is that there were two teams on the field, two teams filled with players that have known each other almost their whole lives, and two teams both looking for a win in the River Battle.
“I think it’s just great for the two communities because the two communities are a cooperative youth football program and all the way up,” Rogers head coach Marc Franz said. “When you play each other every single year all the way through, one team wins one year and one team wins the next. It’s just great for the rivalry, and it’s fun to see both communities to get excited. Both communities are extremely excited about football and their athletics. It just shows on a night like tonight.”
Many people may have expected the Elks to run away with this game. They were coming off what was arguably their best performance of the season, a 49-17 win over St. Francis on homecoming. And sure enough, Adam Nelson was able to break free up the field for a 33-yard touchdown, his 10th of the season, 6:14 into the game.
Teams almost always seem to get a little dejected when the Elks are able to break off a big score early in the game like that. They lose a little bit of their steam and it often leads to the Elks just running up the score, but it didn’t bother the Royals. They have faced the Elks more times than anyone else during their high school careers, and were ready to return the favor.
Sure enough, Cole Larson was able to hit John Torresani for a 37-yard touchdown about two minutes later, showing off some big-play ability of their own.
“It’s one of those things, usually… in a typical year, anytime we play them, it’s like this,” said Elk River head coach Steve Hamilton.
No team ever held more than a one-score lead during this game, with the biggest differential coming at the end of the first quarter when Larson was able to hit Eli Solberg in stride along the sidelines for a 59-yard touchdown to give the Royals a 14-6 lead.
But the Elks would respond, scoring late in the second quarter to make it a 14-12 game after they failed to convert their second 2-point conversion of the night.
All through the game, that’s how it would play out. Both of these rivals were trading punches offensively and defensively. Even when the Elks finally recaptured the lead a minute and a half into the third quarter when Mitch Stroh hit Sherrod Kpahn for a score, putting the Elks up 20-17 after a successful 2-point conversion, the Royals didn’t quit.
Instead, Torresani broke free for a 37-yard run one minute later to put the Royals up 24-20, and that’s how the game would end as both defenses were able to shut their opponents down for the remainder of the night.
The clock hit zero and the Elks began to walk off the field with their heads hung low, and the Royals began to celebrate with one another, eventually being joined out on the field by their screaming fans up in the stands.
But after the emotions of what just transpired died down, and the teams had times to talk among themselves, these two rivals came back together on that field they just battled one another on. They exchanged hugs, laughs, and then all got to one knee and began to pray alongside each other.
That, according to anyone involved in either of these programs, is what the River Battle is all about.
“I think it just speaks to the quality of people that you have on both sides of the field,” Franz said. “There are a lot of good, quality people on the Rogers side and a lot of good, quality people on the Elk River side. I think doing that after a hard-fought game speaks to that, the quality of people on both sides.”