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Oil Boom Brings Small Town A Big Victory: A Football Team, At Last

Sep 23, 2015
Originally published on September 23, 2015 9:54 pm

The oil boom that burst forth in western North Dakota seven years ago had both positive and negative effects on the region. While the increase in wealth and new opportunities for young people were welcomed, they brought along with them increased crime and congestion.

But this fall, the town of Alexander, N.D., is celebrating one unexpected upside of the oil boom: the Alexander Comets.

The Comets are a six-man football team (the school is still too small for an 11-man team). This is the students' first season playing, and the town's first season in 28 years.

"Because of the oil boom, we now have a football team," said Kevin Clausen, who coaches the team in between his weeks living on an oil well pad.

Before the boom began, there were only 55 kids in the entire K-12 school, and no varsity sports. Like so many towns that dot the Great Plains, Alexander was shrinking as farms grew larger and more mechanized while young people moved away.

"It's kind of shocking to hear, 'You don't have enough people so you can't be a school,' " 10th-grader Grace Nelson remembers about hearing her parents discuss the school's possible closing. "'Cause, school is family. That's like saying you can't be with your family every day."

The town has grown by 60 percent since 2008, and there are now more than 200 students enrolled in the school. And they're still coming, despite low oil prices and thousands of layoffs. But there's a downside. The roads are much more dangerous now with all the oil traffic, and many people here say they have a complicated relationship with the oil field.

Mayor Jerry Hatter struggles with that relationship every day.

"I hate the fact that I can drive ... places that there was never anything and it's nothing but solid pumping units and roads and traffic," said Hatter. "It's changed the landscape. But it's [also] given me a lot."

Back in the day, Hatter played football, too, for a much larger high school in Montana. He wishes he could've been on a small, tight-knit team like the Comets.

"I mean, these kids here, they have the ultimate experience," he said. "I hope they do good. It's gonna be a tough year for them."

The first game of the season had a coincidentally perfect backdrop: the Old Settlers Days festival, an annual tradition that started in 1946 as a way to bring people in the community together to eat, dance, drink and socialize as the autumn harvest winds down.

At this first game, the Comets faced their opponents, the Rangers, a team from a small high school in Eastern Montana. The Rangers were more practiced than the Comets, who were quickly identified as the underdogs. However, the fans didn't seem to mind. They cheered at every tackle, many watching the game from the backs of their pickup trucks, holding each other's babies and visiting.

LeAnna Halvorson-Dean grew up in Alexander and missed the sense of community during the 28 years without local football to watch.

"Farmers, ranchers, you get caught up in your lives and you lose track, and it's nice to have everybody back," she said.

Listening to the crowd, you'd never know the Comets lost, 65 to 18. Because in Alexander, just having football back is a huge victory.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The oil boom began in North Dakota about seven years ago, and it's been good and bad. There's been crime and congestion but also more jobs and more money. And this fall, one small town is celebrating a surprising upside of the oil boom. Prairie Public Radio's Emily Guerin reports.

(CHEERING)

EMILY GUERIN, BYLINE: Here's something people here in Alexander, N.D., haven't heard for a long time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ready, breakdown.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Hey, hey, hey.

GUERIN: That's the Alexander Comets. They're a six-man football team. That's right - six man. The school is still too small for an 11-man team.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Way to work, boys.

GUERIN: It's the day before their first game of the season - the first in 28 years. Wide receiver Jayy Morgan is stoked.

JAYY MORGAN: I can't wait for tomorrow to come. My head's going to explode right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It's football season, baby.

GUERIN: Morgan's new to football and new to Alexander. His mom moved out here from Bakersfield, Calif., to work in one of the truck stops built for the oilfield. Kevin Clausen coaches the football team in between his weeks living on an oil well pad.

KEVIN CLAUSEN: Because of the oil boom, we now have a football team.

GUERIN: Before the oil boom began, there were only 55 kids in the entire K-through-12 school and no varsity sports. Like so many towns that dot the Great Plains, Alexander was shrinking as farms grew larger and more mechanized and young people moved away. Tenth-grader Grace Nelson remembers her parents talking about the school possibly closing.

GRACE NELSON: It's kind of shocking to hear you don't have enough people, so you can't be a school 'cause school is family. That's like saying you can't be with your family every day.

GUERIN: The oil boom has changed all of that. The town has grown by 60 percent since 2008, and there are now more than 200 students enrolled. And they're still coming despite low oil prices and thousands of layoffs. But Nelson says there's a downside. The roads are much more dangerous now with all the oil traffic.

NELSON: Over the past three years, we have lost three students.

GUERIN: The quarterback's older brother and another would-be football player were killed in a crash with a semi last January, so many people here say they have a complicated relationship with the oilfield. Mayor Jerry Hatter struggles with that relationship every day.

JERRY HATTER: I hate the fact that I can drive places that there was never anything, and it's nothing but solid pumping units and roads and traffic. And it's changed the landscape.

GUERIN: Game day - the Comets are wearing bright red jerseys and clean white socks. They break out of their huddle sprinting through a line of screaming girls and onto the field to meet their opponents from a small high school in eastern Montana.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The Grass Range-Winnett Rangers.

(APPLAUSE)

GUERIN: The Rangers have had a lot of practice unlike the Comets. They're also huge.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: At six-foot-two, a senior, Tucker Bevis.

GUERIN: It seemed like the Comets were in over their heads. They were clearly the underdogs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: What?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: No.

GUERIN: Another touchdown for the Rangers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Go defense.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Come on, boys.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Get in there, get in there.

(APPLAUSE)

GUERIN: People don't seem to mind, though. They cheer at every tackle. Many are watching the game from the back of their pickup trucks, holding each other's babies and visiting. Leanna Halvorson-Dean is choked up today.

LEANNA HALVORSON-DEAN: Farmers, ranchers - you get caught up in your lives, and you lose track. And it's nice to have everybody back.

GUERIN: She really missed seeing everyone at these games. It's a sense of community that was lacking during those 28 years that this town didn't have local football to watch.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Comets, Comets, Comets.

GUERIN: Listening to the crowd, you'd never know the Comets lost 65-18 because in Alexander, just having football back is a huge victory.

(APPLAUSE)

GUERIN: For NPR News, I'm Emily Guerin.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Comets, Comets, Comets.

MCEVERS: That story came to us from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focusing on America's energy issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.