Separated by 12 miles of back roads and cornfields, NorthWood and Fairfield seem like natural Elkhart County athletic rivals. And they are, except for football.
That will change Friday, Aug. 29, as the Panthers and Falcons will bang helmets for the first time in school history.
FRIDAY, AUG. 29, GAMES
Concord (1-0) at Elkhart Memorial (0-1), 7:30
Goshen (0-1) at Elkhart Central (1-0), 7:30
NorthWood (1-0) at Fairfield (0-1), 7:30
Glenn (1-0) at Jimtown (0-1), 7:30
Northridge (1-0) at SB Riley (1-0), 7 p.m.
West Noble (1-0) at Wawasee (1-0), 7:30
New Prairie (0-1) at Mishawaka Marian (1-0),
Penn (1-0) at Portage (0-1), 7:30 (Elkhart time)
When the schools began playing high school football, there was never any consideration given to the teams playing football. Not even a little. Millersburg and New Paris merged to form Fairfield while Wakarusa and Nappanee joined as NorthWood, with each school opening in 1969.
"There was never any serious talk of it,” said John Weaver, who became Fairfield’s first recognized coach in 1970. "When I came to Fairfield, the schedule was already set and we had the same schedule for a long time. Then we changed conference from the NSC to the NECC. I was against that, but I got voted down.”
Conference affiliations kept the schools from from playing the last 45 years, but strangely enough, changes in the NECC opened the door for the game. Garrett returned to the fold, giving the league 10 teams again and resetting divisional play — five teams in each division.
Since the Falcons now are not required to play the other nine football-playing schools — Westview and Hamilton don’t field teams — Fairfield chose to drop Culver Military, as did NorthWood, to create a natural Week 2 slot for the meeting.
Much like in 1997, when longtime powers Jimtown and NorthWood found an opportunity to meet for the first time as a schedule upgrade, the matchup solves two issues — it gives the Falcons and Panthers another a sure-fire, attendance-heavy gate every other year, and it gives the Falcons a much-needed quality boost to their regular season.
"To get better, we’ve got to play better teams,“ FHS coach Bob Miller said earlier in August. ”We need to start playing these people. I’ve said it before, to be Jimtown good or NorthWood good, you have to play these kinds of teams because that’s what we’ll see in the playoffs.“
The two schools are set for a home-and-home series over the next two years but hope to continue the series in years to come. But hold on to your seats — literally.
Because of limited visitor bleachers, Fairfield officials are encouraging NorthWood fans to bring camping-style chairs and/or blankets to watch the game. The Falcons’ field rests inside a natural bowl, and though the home stands are ample, the permanent visiting seating area is very small.