HARLEM -- The Harlem Wildcats posed for a photo after Friday’s 42-26 Class B football win over Poplar, but it wasn’t just any photo, and it wasn’t just any win.
“I had parents coming up to me crying after the game, telling me thank you and all this stuff,” said first-year head coach Derek Azure.
It was Harlem’s first win on the football field since 2016.
“Some of these kids hadn't won since junior high, and so you could see the emotions coming out of the kids,” Azure said. “All the hard work that we had put in and all this stuff that I preached to them all summer about how they're just as deserving as anybody else to win, it was great to see that pay off.”
Harlem was a once-proud football program, regularly competing for conference titles before the turn of the century, but has since fallen on hard times. The Wildcats haven’t enjoyed a winning season since the early 1990s, and football is often an afterthought to basketball, wrestling and cross country.
“I think the focus of the kids changed from wanting to be all-around athletes that play all sports to wanting to specialize,” Azure said. “And it hurt football.”
Azure is a former Harlem player who wants to rebuild the program to what it once was.
“I’ve loved Harlem football since I was 3 years old when I used to be the ball boy,” Azure said. “I always wanted to come back. And in high school I was really let down by the program and then watching my younger brother was hard because he had so much talent and he was never challenged the right way.”
Friday night’s win came with the odds stacked pretty high.
"I have only have 12 kids that are eligible to play,” Azure explained. “So we went out there with a 12-man team and that just shows you the heart, the dedication and the talent that they have and the efforts that they're willing to put forth. We had kids cramping, we had injuries, but they fought through it and that just shows their mental toughness.”
Individually, senior running back Andrew Rasmussen led the charge. He rushed for 309 yards and five touchdowns on just 15 carries.
“He puts in the effort and it pays off. I mean, he works out four or five times a day,” Azure said of Rasmussen. "He has big aspirations and big dreams, and it just shows what can happen when you actually put forth a lot of effort with a lot of talent.”
One win doesn’t make a season, but, given where the Wildcats have been over the past few decades, beginning the 2020 season with a 1-0 record sure is a good place to start.
“I just want to be competitive every single night we step on the field,” Azure said. “I used to get tired of watching Harlem lose 70-0 and games like that. It's hard to watch. It's hard to be around. But if you have kids that are out there competing and having fun, I mean, that's the reason why you coach.”
Harlem’s next opportunity for a win comes at home against Wolf Point on Friday at 7 p.m.