SUNDANCE -- The jerseys almost didn't make it.
The roundtrip from Sundance to Moorcroft is 66 miles on Interstate 90 -- first west, then back east. That's where Jim O'Connor found himself driving during his lunch break on the final Friday in August. The Sundance activities director used every minute of his 71-minute break to haul over to Moorcroft to meet the jersey supplier and race back to Sundance with the new duds before kick off.
It was Week One of the Wyoming high school football season, and the Upton-Sundance Patriots were mere hours from hosting their home opener against Shoshoni at Bulldog Stadium in Sundance. The game, the first for the combination team consisting of players from both schools, was scheduled for a 3 p.m. kickoff.
"We were handing out jerseys at 1 o'clock," Upton-Sundance head coach Andy Garland said.
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Upton and Sundance are separated by about 30 miles of Highway 116 in the northeast corner of the state.
Last spring, neither school was confident it could field an 11-man football team for an entire season. Sundance's projected participation numbers were below fielding a starting lineup, and Upton was projected to have less than a handful of reserves.
So, rather than forfeit seasons or face the uncertainty of injuries, the two schools agreed in May to combine programs under a two-year agreement, following approval from both school boards. With overall participation numbers still out, the team had to wait until just a few weeks before the season started to learn its playoff eligibility. The Wyoming High School Activities Association ruled in early August that the team was playoff eligible.
O'Connor said all the final approvals put the schools in a time crunch when it came to ordering jerseys and the like. And with everything in place to open this season, it's something the schools won't have to worry about next year.
But one of the biggest question marks heading into the season is how the team would combine on the field.
"It's tough," said Garland, Upton's head coach and the lead coach for the co-op. "You throw a new group together, and you're tying to get them to mix well together."
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The "Bulldogs" sign hangs along the top of the Sundance press box. But at midfield -- painted just that Friday morning -- is the swooshing Patriots logo, signifying the team's new moniker.
And those ever-so-timely jerseys. In red block lettering, "PATRIOTS" reads across the front and blue sweat stripes splay down the side. The pants are red, and the socks -- oh, the glorious socks -- are blue, tubed and three red stripes provide the cap.
But the white T-shirts in the stands stood out just as much as the white jerseys on the field. O'Connor credited Upton principal Pete Wilson with organizing the merchandise push for the opener. In the first two hours of the game against Shoshoni, the stands were littered with fans decked out in white "Upton-Sundance Patriots Football" T-shirts.
Garland spoke of the support from the parents and both administrations. O'Connor echoed what Garland said about the parents; the team held a Zero Week scrimmage in Moorcroft and the Patriots "side of the field was just lined with people."
"That's been just the kind of support we've had with this," O'Connor said.
The team is alternating practice weeks -- the Patriots practiced in Upton this week, in preparation for today's game against NSI Academy -- so each side travels every other week.
But it was during the summer that the two sides first got a chance to come together. Upton senior Caleb Garhart said summer camp was a key first step in the team-building process. In the past, Upton attended team camps tagging along with other schools from the northeast corner, due to low numbers. This year, it was with the new Sundance teammates.
"We were able to run through our playbook and start working with the guys that we know that we're going to have for the season," Garhart said. "It meant a lot."
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The Patriots lost to Shoshoni, 40-6, to open the season. Still, the U-S players ran along the home sideline, handing out high-fives to the fans, many of whom were sporting those white "Patriots" T-shirts.
But wins, losses and possible playoff berths pale in comparison to one simple fact: the Upton-Sundance kids are playing football.
Sundance senior Kory Butts said the co-op allowed him fulfill his one goal for his senior year: playing football. Trent Bush, also a Sundance senior, said it wouldn't have felt right to leave school on a Friday without a game to attend.
The were signs of frustration after the season-opening loss to the Wranglers. But Butts said it's still a work in progress.
"I'm still glad that we combined," Butts said. "It means playing football."
The Patriots rebounded in their East Conference opener at Lingle last week with a 28-6 victory against the Doggers. The win was huge in terms of a first step toward a playoff berth. The Patriots (1-1 overall, 1-0 East) host NSI Academy at 7 p.m. today at Upton.
With conference favorites Southeast and Lusk facing each other today, and Pine Bluffs playing Hill City, S.D., a Patriots' victory against the Wolves would move them into sole possession of first place in the conference.
"Each week, we're getting better," Garland said. "You can see that in the kids. Each week, they're feeling more comfortable with each other."
But just getting a chance to play has been the biggest benefit. Bush was ready from first period on to play in the season opener and Garhart added that he, too, was excited all day.
"And it's nice," Garhart finished, "having all those guys standing on the sideline, you know?"