Saturday, September 22, 2018

Embrace the Butter (Bowl)? You’d better believe it

LAND O'LAKES — Most everyone around here knows this is not the place where they make the butter.

So why, when the town's two biggest high schools meet up for one of the county's biggest football rivalries, is it called the Butter Bowl?

Originally, and it's a sentiment the leaders at both Sunlake and Land O'Lakes continue to foster: to lighten the mood.

"Right after I became principal here I noticed there was a lot of tension regarding this game," said Ric Mellin, who has held the position at Land O'Lakes since March 2009. "I really wanted to try and embrace the idea of the Land O'Lakes community. So I reached out to the then-principal at Sunlake, Steve Williams, and said let's come up with a way that we lessen the rivalry (aspect) and let's have fun with this."

Anyone who has seen the original trophy can attest that they did their part.
It's a slap-dash plaque, with a plastic gator, an old cat toy that might pass for a Seahawk and, yes, the lid from an actual carton of Land O'Lakes butter from the company that — for the benefit of those still unaware — is located in faraway Arden Hills, Minn.

Mellin and Williams knew they had to embrace the butter.

"I'm constantly hearing, 'Are you guys the home of the butter?' So I said to (Williams), 'What about, calling this the Butter Bowl,' and we came up with a goofy trophy, that we hand back and forth through the years to whoever wins this game. He really liked the idea and it would be a great way to embrace the rivalry," Mellin recalled.

The only hitch in his concept is that there's only been one handoff. Land O'Lakes won the first three contests by a combined score of 96-14.

"The first year there, no senior class, one junior who had played football previously, and we had a 160-pound average weighing line. It took a few years," said Bill Browning, the only coach the football team has known.

In 2007, a year Browning admitted the Seahawks should have been playing a JV schedule, they went 0-10, improving to 1-9, then 4-6. But Sunlake completed the turnaround, with 2010 marking the first of six straight seasons with at least eight wins, four playoff trips, and nothing but wins against the Gators.

The last four have come by an average of nearly 25 points.

"We used to be looked at as the little brother. We used to be beat by the older brother, but now it's evened out a little bit," said Michael Cloyd, Sunlake principal since 2015. "It's really very important to keep it positive, because we are one community. When Sunlake opened in 2007, the students we got and a bulk of our faculty came from Land O', and so it really is a family competition."

Cloyd decided to modernize the trophy last year, his right since it's been sitting in his office for so long, but also because the original parts were falling off.

But the Butter Bowl name isn't going anywhere. And both principals hope the original spirit of the idea is remembered. They each took to Twitter this week to stress the importance of sportsmanship.

Last year at Sunlake featured a pregame incident neither wants to see repeated.

"Our students tailgate in the parking lot, and a group of Land O' students decided they were going to tailgate in the parking lot. That didn't go very well," said Cloyd, who is addressing that by having Sunlake students and supporters hold their pregame festivities on campus before driving up to the Swamp.

There is a major chance for the community aspect to show out. Mike Connor, longtime Land O'Lakes booster and public-address voice for football, will have the press box named after him before Friday's kickoff. Connor, a proprietor of Beef O' Brady's whose son Matt does PA for Mitchell, has been in declining health recently but is planning to attend.

There will be a social open to the public at the school's lower cafeteria starting around 6:15.

As for the game itself, it may be one of the most competitive and important in the series. It's the Class 6A, District 6 opener. With only the group champion guaranteed of a playoff spot, and the other three teams (defending champ Mitchell, Pasco and Springstead) all currently with better records Friday's loser may face a steep climb.

Even though he's lived in Tampa Bay fewer than two years, Gators first-year coach Chad Walker realizes the scope.

"When I took the job, people said, it almost doesn't matter what the season turnout is, as long as you beat Sunlake. Kinda was a recurring theme," Walker said.

He knows rivalries, playing in a large high school one (Cedar Cliff vs. Red Land, Pa.) before going 3-1 in college for Lafayette University, against Lehigh, merely the most-played matchup in the sports history.
So although the Butter Bowl may be a new concept, Walker has embraced it.
For that matter, so has the actual butter maker.

"I reached out to the company that first year and asked if they'd be interested in sponsoring it, and I never heard back," Mellin said. "Through the years, after posting about the Butter Bowl on Twitter, I finally got a response back from the corporation.

"They gave it a thumbs up."

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