Lack of spectators adds strange twist to regional final

1/10/2021 | Feature | By Eden Laase

O n a regular day, 8,000 people can fit into the Superior Dome. But regular days don’t exist this season, so when Iron Mountain and Johannesburg-Lewiston took the field on Saturday, that number was more like 150. Players, coaches, managers, water boys, officials and around 30 media personnel were the only people permitted to enter the facility.

The lack of spectators made for an almost eerie atmosphere.

In a game where fans should have been rowdy participants, cheering on their respective teams and chastising officials for calls they didn’t agree with, the silence was — pardon the cliche — deafening.

It felt more like a preseason scrimmage than a regional title game.

“It was like a practice,” Johannesburg-Lewiston coach Joe Smokevitch said following his team’s 7-6 victory. “The kids were pretty excited about the fact that we would get to have fans, and then we couldn’t. So we had to come down from that high. But I mean, to us it was just like a practice. There is nobody at practice watching us.”

Of course, when it comes to practices, no one other than the coaches and players really care what happens. In a regional title, there are two different towns with skin in the game, and two other potential opponents wondering who they will play if they get past their region.

In the postseason, coaches don’t usually have to work to manufacture excitement. But Johannesburg-Lewiston and Iron Mountain hadn’t played a game in nearly a month. Since their last victories players had celebrated Christmas and New Years, and by this time, multi-sport athletes should be well into their winter sports seasons.

All things considered, it would be understandable if players had a hard time wrapping their heads around the gravity of the moment.

From press row, seated at the top of the stands, every sound in the dDome was audible. When a tackle was made you could hear the smack of a helmet hitting pads, and the sound of a body meeting turf. Every punt that hit the ground made a thumping sound that echoed through the facility.

“Let’s go.”

“Get a stop.”

“Let’s get some momentum.”

“Come on defense.”

And many other words of encouragement could be heard from the sidelines, as well as any displeasure coaches had with players or officials.

During timeouts the radio broadcasters voices would float down to the field, and a fan could even be heard blowing during dead balls.

People have fans plugged in when they sleep to create peaceful white noise. They aren’t meant to be heard in high-intensity situations.

Smokevitch tried whatever he could to create a more lively atmosphere from the time the Cardinals entered the building.

“When we were warming up it was so quiet,” he said. “We went out and asked, ‘Hey, could we play some music or something?’ It was just very weird. We have been used to having fans all season long, and now they’ve disappeared. It’s just one more thing to add to this roller coaster of a year.”

Sure, the atmosphere was strange, but according to Iron Mountain coach Robin Marttila, the lack of spectators had no impact on the actual game being played.

“I don’t think it had any bearing on the game as far as playing the game of football,” he said. “Once the ball gets kicked off you are playing football inside the lines. These guys have been doing that for a long time.”

Marttila was right. The rules of the game remain the same no matter what, and so do the emotions of a devastating postseason loss, or a thrilling victory.

When the final buzzer bellowed through the curved walls of the dome, familiar sounds were heard. For the Cardinals they were the sounds of victory — high fives, running and jumping into hugs and cries of elation. And for the Mountaineers, they were sounds of defeat. There were no spectators shuffling out of their seats to muffle the sobs and sniffles.

And for the first, and only time of the night, it finally felt like a regional championship.

Eden Laase

Eden is a co-founder of Upbeat. She has covered pro sports as a Sports Illustrated intern and chronicled Gonzaga’s Final Four run. Recently, she covered Michigan Tech hockey for the Daily Mining Gazette. Eden graduated from Gonzaga with a degree in journalism.


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