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RIVALS SERIES: Regardless of records, it’s always a turf war when Stockbridge and Leslie meet

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, September 26, 2019, 6:03 pm

INGHAM COUNTY — There are plenty of rural roads twisting and turning through the corn and soybean fields of southern Ingham County, connecting the two towns of Stockbridge and Leslie.

Plenty of familial connections between both, as well.

But for one week of the school year in particular — when the football teams from the two high schools meet, as they have every year since they started playing football back in the second decade of the 20th century — all those connections get severed … at least temporarily.

“When I was a kid, I grew up with a Stockbridge address, but I went to Leslie schools. To this day, the Stockbridge bus, and the Leslie bus — and the Dansville bus, actually — they all turn around on the corner by my house. It was a little bit more of a rivalry for me — and it didn’t get much to get me fired up for it — because my mom worked in Stockbridge, my dad worked in Stockbridge, and we all went to Leslie. There’s quite a bit of ties in between the two,” said Tim McCann, who played in the rivalry in high school, graduating in 2004, and now coaches the offensive and defensive lines for the Black Hawks, admitting that his first memory of the rivalry is about as far back as he can remember.

“Oh, man, that was probably before I was even in sports. Even as a kid growing up, it was always ‘It’s Stockbridge Week,’ ‘It’s Rivalry Week,’ ‘It’s the team from just across the way.’ 

I mean, even third and fourth grade, I remember playing against Stockbridge. I knew kids when I was growing up, playing against — we might be friends and go camping in the summer, but when it comes to football season, you weren’t friends anymore.”

As nearly as anyone can figure it, this Friday marks the 114th meeting between the two football teams, as the Stockbridge Panthers will visit the Leslie Black Hawks in Week 5 of the regular season. 

It was a big deal when both teams were in the old Ingham County League, and when both switched over to the Southern Michigan Athletic Association, and now that they’re both in the Greater Lansing Activities Conference. 

“This rivalry has kind of withstood the test of time. If we’re in the same league, we play — if we’re not, we still play. It’s one that we make sure is on the non-conference schedule,” said Stockbridge athletic director Meghan Kunzelman, who married into the Stockbridge family. “I’ve been in the district for three years now, and once you get into the building, and just the buzz of this competition — it doesn’t matter the sport; it’s obviously bigger with football — but I coached volleyball previously, and it was the Leslie game was what mattered. It’s like the end-all, be-all of your season in the kids’ minds.”

The Panthers have held sway in recent years of the rivalry, leading 40-27-2 since 1950, and have won five of the last six and seven of the last 10, including a 40-28 win last year. 

“It’s one of those things where, even when the years are a little lean for each of us, when you don’t turn out a bunch of bodies — when you play Leslie, people turn out. It’s a big deal going back — we believe — forever,” said Jeremy Killinger, a 1994 graduate of Stockbridge, who now serves as the head football coach.

“Scott Farley was over there (at Leslie) for a long time, and we tried to figure out the history. We might’ve played them every year we’ve been playing football, and as far as we can tell, this is our 113th year of playing in Stockbridge.”

Both teams have struggled overall, of late, though, with last year’s rivalry win the only victory on the season for the Panthers, who’ve started 0-4 this season. Coming off a 3-6 season themselves, the Black Hawks are 1-3 under first-year head coach Greg Pscodna. 

Regardless of the results, though, Friday’s game always goes a long way in making a successful season.

“I don’t know want to say it’s a game that’ll make your season, but there’s definitely a different air during Stockbridge week. It’s not that much different from when I was a player to when I’m a coach — I still get excited about it,” McCann said. “If you’re from anywhere around this area, you know it’s been going on forever, and you know it means a lot to both communities. It’s a big week.”

It’s one of those games that will be the talking point at countless class reunions going forward. As adults, graduates of the two schools might not remember what happened in Week 1 or Week 9, but they’ll remember what they did against their rival.

“My dad played here. Even listening to his stories today, he still talks about them. You listen to grandpas talk about them,” McCann said. “Way back when it first started, the bus rides, you had to wear your helmets, because when you came into town, they didn’t like you, they’d throw stuff at you. It’s kind of mellowed out a little bit, but the rivalry is still there.”

Killinger agreed that it’s a much more friendly rivalry than it might have been in some past years. 

“It’s a big deal. I’m really happy to say, and proud to tell you it’s a good — there were times where I’d tell you it was not a clean rivalry, and things got a little out of hand at times, but I think it’s a really professional rivalry now, if you will. Lots of respect for both programs.

But it’s a great rivalry, a big deal. Everybody remembers that they played Leslie. I can tell you I didn’t lose to them in high school, because I know that, and that’s just how important it is. I remember being over on their field, over at their place — they used to play downtown, at a park; I can tell you it was a rocky mess, and we played football on it, and it was a blast,” Killinger said. 

“These kids look forward every year — every year — to playing Leslie. … When you sit down and talk team goals at the beginning of the season, certainly you want to win a league title, and you want to win Week 1, and you want to win a state title — but you circle Leslie. You want to beat Leslie. It’s on the list every year. It’s a no-brainer. And I’m sure we’re on the list for them, top of the list, every year.”

The winner gets to take home the traveling trophy, a helmet on a pedestal, painted with the Stockbridge logo on one side, and the Leslie logo on the other, with the scores of the games on the base.

“That’s a special feeling, to hold that up, and be able to go sing your fight song with that trophy,” McCann said. “But then it’s just as bad when you gotta give that sucker up, and they get to take it over to their sideline. You definitely want to have that in your hands at the end of the game.” 

For Pscodna, who won national championship in Division II (Grand Valley) and Division III (Albion) as an assistant, and was the head coach at D-III Defiance and Alma, getting back to nights like Friday’s — at least in a hands-on capacity — were something he’d missed last year. The former AD and head coach at Michigan Center spent one year as the AD at Montabella High School last season after leaving Alma College. 

“I think once you get coaching in your blood, you always miss it once you step back, and you stand there every Friday night and say ‘Oh, God … why didn’t you do this or do that?’ I mean, yeah, I missed it. You just love being around the kids, trying to coach them up,” Pscodna said. “There’s nothing like a Friday night on the sidelines to get you up and get you excited. The band playing, the cheerleaders and the home crowd, and trying to beat somebody for 48 minutes.”

It didn’t take long for him to figure out the depth of this particular rivalry, either.

“I kind of got that feeling when we had some 7-on-7s this summer, when I first got here in July, and we went against Stockbridge one time. The intensity just picked up, even in 7-on-7. I had no idea. I had no idea at that time that Stockbridge was our rival until we got going, until the kids said it, or a coach said it, and I go ‘Oh, OK …’” the coach said Wednesday. “Yeah, it definitely picked up the intensity, and I think could see that today in practice.”

This particular season’s meeting is further intensified by the fact that for Leslie, it’s homecoming week, bringing along all the trappings that entails, like a parade, and the annual homecoming steak dinner put on by the Vickers family, owners of the local funeral home in Leslie.

“The Vickers family here in Leslie has bought steaks for just over 30 years, I believe, and they cook them, and bring them up, and they kind of talk a little bit about the Leslie football tradition,” said McCann, who was part of the shindig as a player, too. “It’s done during homecoming week, and this is kind of a special year, because it’s homecoming week and it’s Stockbridge Week, so that works out kind of nice. But it’s definitely the team meal favorite, I would say, for the year.”

Stockbridge had its homecoming last week, but the emotional high has just sort of carried over.

“The closer the game gets, the more it gets buzzed up. We had a really exciting homecoming week last week, and had a pink night in support of a local community member, so they were pretty amped up last week, for homecoming, but then to back up to Leslie week, it’s just been a really exciting two weeks here,” Kunzelman said. “They’re just ready to play. This game, when you see it on the field, doesn’t matter the win-loss records in this game — you could have someone contending for the state tournament, and someone not be doing well, but because of the intensity of the rivalry, it’s anybody’s game. … Kids are friends with kids over there, but when it’s Friday, and they’re on the field, the switch gets flipped, and that’s the focus: beating them. Then afterwards, they’re OK.”