FAIRMONT - For nearly six decades, southern Minnesota's prep version of the annual Little Brown Jug football game has frequently determined the South Central Conference champion, in addition to producing countless memorable moments.
The 59th version between Fairmont head coach Mat Mahoney's Cardinals and Blue Earth Area mentor Randy Kuechenmeister's Bucs at 7 p.m. tonight at Wilson Field in Blue Earth, however, will likely feature an even more important prize - the No. 2 spot in the Section 3AAA playoffs and a first-round bye.
"After looking at the (www.minnesota-scores.net) QRF rankings, the winner probably earns the second seed in the section and gets a reprieve in the opening round of the playoffs," said Mahoney. "There's definitely a lot at stake in this week's game with its postseason implications."
Fairmont (4-2) currently holds the spot directly behind Class AAA, No. 1-ranked and sectional leader Belle Plaine (6-0) with a 51.9 rating, while Blue Earth Area (4-2) hovers in the No. 4 spot in the section at 42.8. SCC rival St. Peter (4-2) clings to the No. 3 spot in Section 3A at 44.0.
"Who knows? It could be a repeat of last year when the two of us played during Week 7 and then turned around and played each other again two weeks later," said Kuechenmeister, whose Bucs posted a 33-24 regular-season victory over the Cardinals at Mahoney Field last fall to end Fairmont's four-year grasp on the jug.
While to the victor goes the coveted corked crock, the final decision likely will not determine this year's SCC football champion.
"As odd as it sounds, this year's jug game won't impact the final outcome of which team wins the conference championship. But don't kid yourself, we'd still like to finish higher in the SCC than Blue Earth (Area) and have the bragging rights there," said a grinning Mahoney, whose lineup enters tonight's clash with a 2-1 league mark. The Bucs kick off the game with a 1-2 SCC record.
Class 4A, No. 6-ranked Waseca (6-0 overall, 4-0 league) will be favored to defeat St. James (2-4, 1-2) in the Bluejays' final conference clash of the season tonight to claim the crown outright.
If that happens, Waseca will end the six-year back-and-forth battle between Fairmont and Blue Earth Area as the No. 1 football team in the SCC. The Bucs won the SCC title last fall, the Cardinals held the league championship from 2008-11, while Blue Earth Area claimed the 2007 crown.
Prior to that campaign, all three gridiron programs were part of the two-year experiment known as the Southern Minnesota Alliance during the 2005 and 2006 seasons.
Ironically, the current six South Central Conference football teams are tentatively set to merge with the Southwest Conference again starting in 2014.
"We will maintain our long-time rivalry with Blue Earth (Area) in the new conference next fall, so this won't be the last time we face each other during the regular season," said Mahoney. "Now, we need to focus on winning this week's football game to help us get to the next level.
"We take great pride in wanting to win the jug back - now we have to go out and make plays and limit our mistakes."
After all of the preparation and practice, the winner of the jug game will be determined by two sets of highly-skilled student-athletes at Wilson Field in Blue Earth tonight.
"Obviously, we know that Fairmont has quality receivers in Luke Becker and Josh Eversman, but you don't want to lose track of where (tight end) Jay Ruen is on the field either," said Kuechenmeister. "(Quarterback Spencer) Chirpich throws a very nice ball, which is evident by the amount of yardage (1,229) and touchdowns (17) he's generated so far."
While the Cardinals' offense averages 24.3 points per outing, the Bucs' balanced spread offense also features 'big-play' skills, backed up by a 31.8-point scoring clip.
"Luke Schavey stepped in at quarterback after Kysten (Zierke) went down with an injury during our season-opener and has done what we (coaching staff) have asked of him and more," said Kuechenmeister. "He's done a nice job for us, but he's just one part of what we want to do offensively."
Mahoney agreed with his coaching counterpart's pre-game assessment.
"Even though Zierke's out for the season with a knee injury, the Bucs still have David Franta and Gus Phillips and they're two tough football players," said Mahoney. "Defensively, I can't remember the last time Franta missed a tackle, while Phillips is a guy you always have to keep an eye on because of his quickness.
"Offensively, they are excellent backs who run hard every single time they touch the ball."
But even after hours of analyzing film, installing a new play or formation here and there, and perusing the statistics, the outcome of the Little Brown Jug game is never predictable.
"I've played in it and coached in it, and you're not quite sure what's going to happen, but you know that it's going to be a good old-fashioned dog fight when these two teams meet," said Mahoney.