Hawley, Barnesville come together to honor late football coach with new rivalry trophy
BARNESVILLE, Minn.—Barnesville head football coach Bryan Strand's favorite coach is his father. Richard Strand coached football at Southland High School in Adams, Minn., for 30 years beginning in 1973, winning a state title in 1983.
Bryan will always remember Dec. 6, 2014. It was the day of his father's funeral. Part of the memory of that day is standing in the doorway and seeing Hawley head coach Peder Naatz and Hawley assistant coach Lee Eklund walking in. Eklund was walking in after recently being diagnosed with colon cancer.
"It was very touching," Strand said. "Meant the world to me. Every time the rest of the school year Lee would ask how I was doing. I'd try and talk about him and he'd always change it to me and how I was doing after losing my dad. His heart was amazing."
On Friday, No. 4 Hawley and No. 2 Barnesville will play a football game in Barnesville. The Nuggets and Trojans are two of four teams in Class 2A that remain undefeated. The Trojans have won 38 straight games at home in the regular season, 29 in a row total, and are 53-1 in Barnesville since losing to Hawley in the regular season on Oct. 5., 2007. Barnesville adds a practice at 6:45 a.m. the week the Trojans take on Hawley. Hawley has lost the last three meetings by a combined score of 113-32, including a 24-14 loss in last season's section championship game.
"The excitement that this game brings to the schools and communities is pretty infectious," Naatz said. "People hope for both teams to be undefeated going into the game and this year we have that. It makes it seem like there's actually more on the line than there really is. The real big game is when and if it happens in early November."
Barnesville wants to beat Hawley. Hawley wants to beat Barnesville. Strand wants to beat Naatz. Naatz wants to beat Strand. A top seed for section playoffs is on the line.
But there's so much more to Hawley and Barnesville than the score of a football game.
"I don't think there is bad blood between the towns like there is with a few other area schools, as far as a 'heated' rivalry," Strand said. "Our kids for the most part seem to get along well with their kids, and there doesn't seem to be that hatred or bad feelings with them. To me it is a fun rivalry that we want to win and means a lot to our kids because it is Hawley and they have had so much success over the years. They are the ones everyone wants to knock off, kind of like the Patriots of the NFL."
Eklund was a teacher and coach in Hawley for over 40 years. His pride and joy was leading the scout team for the Hawley football team, which he called his blue dogs because they wore blue beanies on their helmets during practice. In 2014, Barnesville joined Hawley in wearing a blue stripe on their helmets to honor Eklund and his fight with colon cancer. The Trojans helped raise money for him and at a game between Hawley and Barnesville in 2014, the fans on the Barnesville side held a "BHS Supports Coach Eklund" sign.
Eklund died this February. His obituary mentioned the blue dogs.
On Friday, the Hawley-Barnesville rivalry will get its first trophy. The game will be called the "Battle for Lee's Paddle" and the trophy will be a gold paddle with Eklund on it.
"This paddle will represent the class and commitment that Lee always showed to everyone he met" is part of what's written on the paddle.
Hawley-Barnesville is so much more than a rivalry.
"I have a ton of respect for Peder, as well as their offensive coordinator Brett Schmidt, they work so well together and are fun to prepare for," Strand said. "Before his passing I became close to Lee Eklund and that added a whole different level of respect for them. He was a great man with a heart as big as the town of Hawley."