When the Princeton and Milaca football teams took to the field Friday, Sept. 6, it was the resumption of a rivalry the players on both teams knew little – if anything – about.
Sure, many of them still know each other and have competed in other sports.
But there was a time when the Princeton vs. Milaca football game was one of the biggest shows around, bringing both communities to a near-standstill for game time.
After an eight-year break, the schools separated by 13 miles along U.S. Highway 169 met again on a perfect Friday night. Princeton held off a late Milaca rally for a 35-28 victory.
Where the rivalry goes from here is anyone’s guess, but what it once was is not lost on former players, coaches and community members.
The last meeting was a 35-26 Milaca victory in 2011. While the crowd at Princeton’s field was huge and the Tigers left the field celebrating with the newly created Pizza Paddle traveling trophy, it wasn’t hard for those involved in the early games of this rivalry to become a little nostalgic when recalling their memories.
“I think it’s very exciting to have the rivalry game again,” said Doug Patnode, Princeton’s head coach from 1973-89 and again from 1992 to 2004. “It seems like for the most part you can forget about the records. They don’t seem to matter. It’s how well teams play that night that generally determine the outcome. I know there have been swings for one team or the other, but those usually didn’t last too long.”
Luther Dorr has likely seen as many of the Princeton-Milaca games as anyone during his 40 years as sports editor of the Princeton Union-Eagle. He longs for those good old days when rivalries seemed too large for words.
“It was a huge thing, and one of the reasons was there was a dividing line between Princeton and Milaca,” Dorr said. “People lived on the other side of the road and went to different schools. People knew each other well. They grew up together but they played on opposite teams. The old Rum River – Princeton, Milaca, Cambridge, Elk River in the old Rum River. Those four schools — it was massive because of the kids going out with each other and doing things with each other, it was the biggest game of the year certainly for Milaca and one of the biggest for Princeton.”
The rivalry dates back to the 1930s when games in Princeton were played at the fairgrounds and Great Northern Railroad would run a train into the host town with stops in Pease and Long Siding. The rivalry, like many around the state, likely reached its pinnacle during the 1960s through ‘90s.
“It was definitely intense back then,” Dorr said. “I can prove that by the fact that in the late ‘80s I wrote a column knowing Princeton had won four or five in a row and a lady from Milaca got mad about that and wrote a letter about it. Then I went to the game in Princeton, came home and my lawn was littered with toilet paper. It was that important to Milaca, and it was in Princeton, too.”
But times change. Schools sometimes outgrow rivalries, and conference realignment continues to take its toll.
When the schools met in 2004, it marked the beginning of the end to the series. The next fall, Princeton was a member of the Mississippi 8 Conference and Milaca stayed in the Rum River. Schedules aligned for a one-year resumption of the rivalry in 2011, but that was the only meeting in the series since 2005 until Friday’s entertaining matchup.
Dorr recalled the 1966 game as one of the more memorable in the series. That year, Tim Enger rushed nine times for 205 yards, including a 91-yard touchdown, in a 26-12 win for the Princeton.
Patnode graduated from Milaca High School and played for longtime coach Herb Claffy.
He played at the University of Minnesota-Morris with Duane Jerzak, who soon because Milaca’s coach. The two coaches knew each other well, which added even more spice to the series.
“It was always exciting and it was always a challenge,” Patnode said. “It was my perspective that it was no bigger than any other game, but it’s easy to say that. The kids always got fired up. As coaches you sometimes try to pull that stuff back a little, but you can’t. They were fired up, ready to play and they wanted to win. That went both ways.”
Randy Johnson started as an assistant football coach in Milaca in 1975 and was head coach from 1989-91 and again from 2002-13.
He also went to Minnesota-Morris and recalls the coaches and players having fun with it despite the intensity.
“My first thoughts go back to the late ‘70s and ‘80s when that was the game of the year,” said Johnson, who retired three years ago after 42 years as a biology teacher in Milaca. “There were some bitter rivalries at that point. There were different things going on in the towns and there was a lot of interest in it. I’m excited about the rivalry coming back.”
Johnson recalled a humorous moment when Milaca implemented what was dubbed the “Radar Defense.” To combat it, Patnode said his Tigers would install a “Fuzz-buster Offense.”
Once it was announced the rivalry would return in 2019, local businesses got involved and both schools’ activities directors talked about how to make it more than just another game.
The result was the creation of the Pizza Paddle traveling trophy, which Princeton will undoubtedly proudly display until the next meeting.
“I really think the rivalry can get back to where it was,” said Johnson, who now spends his Friday nights officiating football to stay involved. “They’ve done a lot to stir up interest in the community and involving the businesses has helped. Playing that team just down the road is always a big thing that you don’t want to lose it. We still have the rivalry with Foley even though it might not be as strong as it used to be, but it’s still a special game. To continue that with Princeton would be big.”
Unofficially, Princeton’s win on Friday gives the Tigers a 36-25-1 edge in the series. Milaca will have a chance for revenge on Sept. 11, 2020, when the Tigers travel to Claffy Field.