By Eric Erickson
Como’s state-of-the-art synthetic turf field was scheduled to be completed and ready for use by Aug. 18. The Como football and soccer teams had planned to practice and play games on the new surface all season. The students were stoked.
But construction stalled over the summer, and the fall sports season began instead with a huge pile of dirt inside the track where the field was to be installed. The school district’s project managers said the field would not be ready until the second week of October.
“It was disappointing and a letdown,” said senior football player Donnie Ventrelli.
“We had dreams of playing our senior year at home and finally having a home-field advantage,” added senior lineman Jay Viar Johnson.
Time to execute Plan B.
For the Cougars’ football team, Plan B involved practicing at the Murray Middle School soccer field, which was available through Sept. 11, when the Pilots’ soccer teams would use the space. While coaches and players were grateful for some green grass, hauling 45 players, pads, water jugs and equipment on a bus 4 miles down Como Avenue (which is under construction) to a field with no football lines was administratively challenging.
Coach Kirby Scull described it as less than ideal. “However, compared to what we had to do next, Murray was better because at Murray we could at least store the tackling dummies and larger equipment in the shed there,” Scull said.
When Sept. 11 came and the Cougars were displaced from Murray, they relocated their practice sessions to park space in front of Rice Street Recreation Center.
“The field conditions were worse,” Scull said. “There isn’t a lot of grass and it was even more of a challenge with equipment because there was no storage over there, so we were hauling everything back and forth from school every day,” Scull said.
One day, as the coaches were unloading the tackling dummies from the back of Scull’s pick-up truck, they realized one was missing.
During practice, some of the players noticed a man walking down the street carrying the large, recognizable item. Assistant coach Nick Vruno proceeded down an alley and found the man in his backyard, grilling with his son—and the lost tackling dummy resting against the garage.
The homeowner explained that he found it in the intersection of Rice Street and Maryland Avenue. Apparently, that was the turn where the tackling dummy fell out of Scull’s truck.
Vruno had a nice conversation with the gentleman, who returned the football equipment to its rightful owners. The team showed its gratitude by giving him a Cougars football T-shirt the next day. Like many other times in their unusual season, the Cougars made the best of their situation.
The Cougars continued to play their “home” games at rival school sites, primarily Griffin Stadium at Central High School. That was definitely not the plan last spring when the team was featured in a groundbreaking ceremony for the home turf. The unexpected, nomadic nature of the season could have cast a net of negativity over the program; the Cougars’ senior leaders could have been bitter. They weren’t. They just went to work with the goal of getting better every day.
The maturity, leadership and talent of a strong senior class carried the Cougars to a regular season record of 6-2, Como’s best mark since 2007. Robert Adams, Gunnar Olson, Tim Simmons, Will Wooten, Lumin Johnson, Patrick Corniea, Roberto Urbina, Jonathan Ortiz, Kaspian Menne, Sam Cojolo, Donnie Ventrelli and Jay Viar Johnson form a core, contributing key roles on both sides of the ball.
Scull proudly credits the special group of seniors for this season’s success.
“I’m impressed with the way they’ve handled adversity on and off the field,” Scull said. “I’ve tried to live in the moment enjoying the time coaching them. I’m grateful for all their commitment and dedication.”
With an uncertain timeline, the team still held out hope for playing the Oct. 7 homecoming game at home, on the new field. It didn’t happen.
However, Como’s winning record put the team in position to receive a high seed for the Class 4A, Section 4 playoffs, which would mean hosting a game on the new field. If the team finished with strong results, the seniors could play one game on the turf.
As the Bugle went to press, the students were once again stoked. The Cougars earned the No. 1 seed in their section, and the right to host a semi-final game on Saturday, Oct. 28, and the opportunity for the seniors to leave Como with a positive connection to the new field they’ll eventually return to as alumni.
First game on the new turf
For the soccer teams, the prospect of playing on a reliable, new, full-sized turf field similar to their opponents’ venues was promising. The construction delays were frustrating, but the boys’ and girls’ varsity teams reverted to the routines of every previous season by sharing the small, sometimes swampy grass field east of the building.
The Como soccer girls started to compile quality wins against Section 4A opponents, who they would be pitted against in the playoffs. Confidence increased and the goals kept coming. The Cougars set a school record for goals scored while posting 11 shutouts during the regular season and compiling a record of 13-3.
Those results provided the team with a home play-off game on Oct. 10. It could be played on the new turf if last-minute preparations could be completed. Goals and player benches were brought in a couple of hours before game time and the first Como athletic contest on the dreamy surface brought out many smiles.
A convincing victory over Johnson was a perfect opening event. “It was empowering to know we made history,” said senior captain Emily Forstrom. The team made more history by reaching the section semi-finals for the first time since 2006 before falling to highly ranked Mahtomedi.
The boys’ soccer team had a grueling schedule with challenging competition in the St. Paul City Conference, but still earned a high seed, (No. 4 in Section 4A), which meant they’d host a quarter-final section match on the turf two days after the girls.
With the facility already tested, the eager senior boys finally got their chance to shine on the new stage. They won the quarter-final match against Hmong Academy 4-0.
“It was magical, every step I took,” Saw Johny said. “There’s going to be historical moments there, so it was special to be able to play that game there. There was excitement on everyone’s faces.”
As usual, the excitement around Como boys’ soccer peaks during the last half of October. The Cougars followed up their home win by going out to Mahtomedi and defeating the top seed 2-1 in the semi-finals. That set up an all-St. Paul section final against city rival Harding, the No. 3 seed, in the Knights’ stadium on Thursday evening of the MEA fall break.
While the result didn’t go the Cougars’ way, the team’s improvement throughout the season was noteworthy. The effort put forth to reach a section championship game and attain a runner-up trophy was another accomplishment for a successful program.
Fall 2017 certainly revealed the resilience and perseverance of the Como athletic teams, students, coaches and school community. With new facilities now in place to serve Como students and families for years to come, the pride in how our kids play is accompanied by pride in where they play.
Eric Erickson is a social studies teacher at Como Park Senior High School and a longtime coach of school and youth sports in St. Paul. Follow twitter @eestp for current school sports news.