A new era finally begins this weekend for the Winnebago High School football team.
On Friday night, Winnebago will kick off its first gridiron season as members of the All Nations Football Conference, a league made up of Native American tribal schools across North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska.
After the season was delayed in the fall due to COVID-19, the league announced plans for a six-game spring schedule. Due to health protocols and the closure of some of the reservations, seven of the league’s 18 schools will kick off this Friday, with Winnebago playing its first season in the 9-man football league.
Winnebago broke away from the Nebraska School Activities Association after the 2019 season to join the ANC, due to low participation numbers, and a desire to play against other similar-sized programs.
The All Nations conference began play in 2019, the brainchild of Lower Brule (S.D) Superintendent Lance Witte. After watching tribal schools with 11-15 players go up schools with 35-40 participants, Witte saw the need for a change.
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“Just looking at the disparity in numbers I guess as far as participation, that was the biggest concern that we were seeing," Witte told South Dakota Public Broadcasting. "And so we began conversations about maybe we needed to re-look at this for our tribal schools, and come up with another alternative.”
The league began with 12 tribal schools, and then added six more after the completion of its first season. But due to COVID-19 protocols, more than half the league declined to participate in the upcoming spring season.
Starting Friday, Omaha Nation, Cheyenne-Eagle Butte (N.D), Marty Indian School (S.D), Tiospa Zina (S.D.), Lower Brule (S.D.), McLaughlin (S.D.), and Winnebago will start their spring schedule.
Winnebago’s other spring sports, golf and track, are still members of the NSAA, while athletic director and longtime Indians’ football coach Adam James hopes to use the team’s time in the All Nations conference as a springboard to eventually return to the NSAA at a higher level.
For the past 10 years, Winnebago competed in Nebraska’s Class D1, and for eight of those years, they were ineligible for the playoffs due to their low numbers.
Now, in the new league, the school will finally get a chance to play for a postseason trophy.
“We would’ve been able to make the playoffs three of those eight years,” James said. “Our kids found out about that, that we weren’t making the playoffs, and this gives those kids something to play for in the offseason, and hopefully this propels our program to another level where we can get back into C2 football here in Nebraska.”
The league will play a two-week postseason, with the semifinals happening on May 21, and the finals being played on May 28.
This season, the Indians have around 24 players out for football, nine participating in track and field, and three doing golf.
Just down the road at Omaha Nation, head coach Matt Hudnall said that his program goes into the season with 28 players on the roster. After a rough 2019 season, Hudnall is confident that his team can score a few wins this season against All Nations competition in its first season in the league.
Three of the Chiefs' eight games in 2019 were against top-three ranked schools in Class D1, and the team finished 0-8. With the move to the new conference, Hudnall hopes to rebuild his team's confidence with a possible playoff push.
"It was kind if daunting for the kids. Obviously, it was rough," Hudnall said of 2019. "That was kind of our hope, was to get the kids to gain some confidence in playing football and kind of build up that way."
Like James, Hudnall says that the All Nations Football Conference could help boost Omaha Nation back into the NSAA, but he is also open to the new league being the team's permanent home.
"In the future if we're at that point, then yeah, hop back into Nebraska class football," Hudnall said. "If not, and its going well, and the conference is going well, we might stay there."
Back at Winnebago, senior Caleb Kearns will be the Indians’ quarterback this spring, with senior Lucian Decora stepping back into his role at tight end. At running back, freshman Antrel Harlan will get the starting nod.
A trio of brothers will all see playing time on defense for the Indians, with sophomore Destin Vargas, junior Carlos Vargas, and senior Elijah Vargas all penciled in as starters.
There will be a few downsides to the new league. For one thing, aside from Omaha Nation, Winnebago’s closest All Nations competitor this spring is Marty Indian School, a two-hour, 30-minute drive away.
For their season opener on Friday, the Indians will be going even further than that.
“It’ll be new,” James said. “It’s nine-man football, so not knowing what to expect, our kids are excited and pumped up to go up. We’re going to Cheyenne-Eagle Butte, which is about a six and a half hour trip. It’s a pretty good jaunt, but our kids are pumped up to go up and play football.”
It has been quite awhile since either school's football players have played a game. The Indians' most recent competition came on Oct. 25, 2019, when they lost to Guardian Angels Central Catholic, 80-16.
For the Chiefs, they lost that same day to Homer, 72-8, and will open at home on Friday against Tiospa Zina.
After 532 days without football, and with a whole new slate of opponents to take on, the Chiefs and Indians are both eager to get this season started.
“It’s the spring, so it’ll be a little bit of a schedule shock to them,” James said. “But I tell you what, the kids are excited, and I can’t wait to get them out on the field.”