A RIVALRY NO MORE

Virginia quarterback Jack Toman spins away from Eveleth-Gilbert's Will Bittmann in the first half of last year's game in Eveleth.

The rivalry between the Virginia and Eveleth/Eveleth-Gilbert football teams is a rich one that goes back 116 years.

The all-time record is 47-47-2, which accounts for the years the neighboring towns did not play, according to former Virginia head coach Ed Cremers.

The game between Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia, which was to be played five days ago, would have broken the tie forever due to the combination of the two teams next season as the Rock Ridge Wolverines.

Unfortunately, a second positive COVID-19 test on the E-G team canceled their season and the game that was considered the rubber match in the longtime rivalry.

“It will end in a tie, which might be fitting,’’ Cremers said.

“I feel really sorry for the seniors,’’ said Frank Fabish, Virginia head coach from 1983 through 1997. “I know how I would feel if we didn’t have a senior season (due to COVID) when I was playing. ... It would be really tough.’’

“Devastating would be the word to describe it,’’ said former Eveleth player Tom Lawrence.

Losing that game and the end of the season is sad for the players.

“We didn’t get to play our last game’’ will be the statement for them. “Their last game was the game they never got to play.’’

“I feel for all the athletes and the kids that are trying to make some sort of normalcy out of these times,’’ said Bob Pazzelli, a member of the 1973 Eveleth state championship team.

“Compared to what we experienced, it’s just not fair.’’

Beyond the impact the coronavirus has had on sports this year, many in the area are a bit unhappy to see the local rivalry go away.

“It’s never easy to see these traditions die,’’ Cremers said. However, “it’s going to be fun to make new traditions.’’

“It was a big rivalry every year. We had to get pumped up for them and they had to get pumped up for us,’’ Fabish told the Mesabi Tribune.

Lawrence, the son of Eveleth coach Dick Lawrence, remembers playing and winning his last rivalry game against Virginia. Eveleth was up big and recovered a fumble at Virginia’s 10 late in the contest. He asked his dad about just running out the clock, but his dad wanted to make a statement to Virginia head coach Art Haege. “I threw a halfback pass and we scored again.’’

Lawrence said he will always remember that because it was his last game against Virginia.

“They always had some of the best talent around. Any time we could beat Virginia in anything ... it was a big thing for us.’’

Lawrence and Mike Sertich (former Virginia player and UMD head hockey coach) often talked about the rivalry when Sertich was coaching hockey and Lawrence was playing football at UMD.

Sertich, of course, wanted to talk about his senior year when Virginia won handily. Lawrence wanted to talk about the Eveleth wins in 1975 and 1976.

“It was fun just bantering back and forth with Sertie,’’ Lawrence added.

Cremers also recalled his playing days fondly.

‘‘I just was thinking back and I remember my senior year we played Eveleth and they had a big tough running back named Mark Flannigan and it happened to be that that was also when the Mesabi Trail was opened. Coach Fabish said if we lose to Flannigan and the Bears, we would have to walk the new Mesabi Trail home.’’

As Cremers was compiling the all-time record, he came across signs of just how intense the rivalry was more than 100 years ago.

In a Virginia yearbook from after World War I, the annual edition stated, “Eveleth play a bunch of ringers in the first game, so they didn’t play a second game.’’ The yearbook said it was canceled for “just cause,’’ Cremers said jokingly.

As a player, he recalls Virginia blocking a punt in his junior year and returning it for a touchdown. That score won the game for the Blue Devils and sent them to state.

Conversely, he didn’t like playing the rivalry game in Eveleth, especially at Homecoming when trucks with all the homecoming king and queen candidates circled the field in the back of pickup trucks for the halftime festivities.

“I remember playing in the game,’’ said Cremers, who heard his dad and uncles talking about it when he was growing up. “It was always hard to keep the kids focused for a whole week.’’

Lawrence recalls Eveleth having a target on its back as the defending state champions, especially against Virginia. “We knew going in we were going to have to play our best game.’’ The rivalry took things to another level, he added.

The Dick Lawrence/Art Haege coaching rivalry stepped things up even further. “It was Eveleth-Virginia. I think every game we had was important’’ because you grow up with these kids in Virginia and you get to know them pretty good. “I don’t think there was a better rivalry anywhere than Eveleth-Virginia back in the day.’’

1973 was one of the more intense years, according to Pazzelli.

“VHS had one loss and we were undefeated at the time. It was a really big game’’ with a “huge crowd.’’ In the end, Eveleth came away with the win on their home turf.

“It was hyped up to be a big game, which it was,’’ Pazzelli said. “Fortunately for us, we got an early lead and just kind of stayed with it. ... We beat them handily.’’

The game came before Eveleth went to the state playoffs, which made it “probably the biggest game because of the rivalry. It was the biggest game of the season up to that date.’’

The boys were always ready to play in the rivalry games, Pazzelli stated. “There was no doubt.’’ Back in the 1970s, “if you couldn’t get yourself ready for a Virginia/Eveleth game, something was wrong with you.’’

Fabish said Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert always had good teams and had a lot of fun. “There was no trouble getting the kids up for the games.’’

There were some “real tight games’’ during his tenure. “They were real battles.’’

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Lawrence believes the rivalry will go down as one of the best due to the proximity of the schools.

“It’s kind of a sad day to see that rivalry going away. I’m anxious to see what Rock Ridge brings to the table athletically.’’

Pazzelli supports the schools combining, but said it’s “sad’’ that the rivalry is going away. “It was a rivalry, but it was healthy. It was a great rivalry for everything.’’

“They’ll have to get a new rival,’’ said Fabish, who predicted it will probably be Hibbing because they are the next biggest town.

With two of the area’s biggest rivals now joining up, “they’re going to have to learn to play together.’’ Fabish figured the kids from both schools already know each other, which will help with the transition.

“It’s never easy to see these traditions die,’’ but Cremers, who coached the combined Rock Ridge junior high team this fall with Jeff Teasck, has already witnessed in person the kids coming together.

The players know that having more kids on the team makes them better. “They know. They get it. They want to compete at the highest level.’’ With increased numbers, it’s not all dependent on one kid, Cremers added.

When the Rock Ridge Wolverines (grades 7-8) came together to play their initial game, “it was fun to see firsthand,’’ he said. “When they put on the Wolverines jersey, their eyes lit up.’’

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Having COVID-19 end E-G’s season and the rivalry was felt by the former players and coaches, as well.

Fabish was not exactly surprised by the impacts of COVID on holding some games and added that the activities directors did a great job of scheduling and rescheduling when issues popped up.

Fabish would have preferred to see the games played in the spring as initially planned. “I was really leary about this because it really didn’t look good.’’

“It’s really sad,’’ Pazzelli said. “I feel for all the athletes and the kids that are trying to make some sort of normalcy out of these times.’’

There are a lot of things the students missed due to the coronavirus, too. No prom or graduation, he added. “I feel for the kids.’’

Lawrence said the football team had a little bit to hold onto from the 2020 season. “At least they were able to play a couple games.’’

E-G can also hold bragging rights in some regard. After Virginia won the initial Highway 53 traveling trophy in 2017, the Golden Bears won it in both 2018 and 2019 and are still in possession of the coveted rivalry game prize.

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