St. Mary’s Welcomes Montana’s ‘Fighting Saints’
Published: January 6, 2011
Pre-kindergarten student Joeleane Vo, right, and her classmates get a visit at their table by Carroll College sophomore defensive end Will Wright. Players and coaches from the Montana Catholic college popped in and out of classrooms on the elementary school wing as they spent time with students. (Photos by Michael Alexander)
ROME—Students at St. Mary’s Catholic School were treated to a special visit the morning of Dec. 17, the last day before their Christmas break, when the Carroll College Fighting Saints football team stopped by. All roads led to Rome for the team from the small Catholic college in Helena, Mont. The next day they were scheduled to play the University of Sioux Falls in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics football championship at Rome’s refurbished Barron Stadium.
Welcomed by a very enthusiastic group of students, 60 or so players and 10 coaches entered the school gym to the music of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” (“The Hey Song”) and syncopated chants of “Carroll College—Fighting Saints—Carroll College—Fighting Saints!” The players were moved by the adulation and outpouring of support.
Head coach Mike Van Diest, who is in his 12th season, addressed the students and then passed the microphone to his senior captains. Center Andy Fjeseth, tight end Bubba Bartlett, defensive back Pat Regan and defensive tackle Mason Siddick worked the students up into a crowd-pleasing frenzy. Before they left, the players sang the Carroll fight song, a tradition that takes place after every game, win or lose.
Carroll College head football coach Mike Van Diest, center, addresses the students at St. Mary’s School, Rome. Some 60 players and coaches from the Montana Catholic school stopped by the day before their Dec. 18 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) championship game against the University of Sioux Falls.
From there, the players and coaches broke up into groups. Some stayed in the gym to talk to a group of middle school students, while others popped in and out of classrooms on the elementary school wing. They conversed and played with students and signed footballs and other items upon request. For some of the players it was an opportunity to reconnect with the students since the Carroll College team visited St. Mary’s when they played for the NAIA championship in 2008. Van Diest said they usually try to visit different schools.
“Visiting with the students allows the players to remember what it was like when they were young elementary students. It brings out the best in them. It’s an opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life and another way to spread the Christmas spirit,” the coach said.
After the classroom visits were over, the team went to the school chapel for Mass celebrated by Carroll College campus minister and team chaplain, Father Marc Lenneman.
Carroll College defensive tackle Mason Siddick, center, runs through the crowd of cheering students as the Fighting Saints prepare to leave St. Mary’s.
As they left the chapel and made their way back to waiting buses, an uproarious assemblage of second-, third- and fourth-graders and their teachers lined the walkway, cheering, holding signs and slapping “high-fives” with players and coaches. Standing off to the side, taking in the final moments of their visit for the first time was 6-foot-4 sophomore outside linebacker, Rhakeem Harris. The student from Lakeland, Fla., is the only player on the team from east of the Mississippi River.
“It’s super exciting to be here,” said Harris. “Two years ago I came up to see Carroll play. I never thought I’d be playing in the championship myself.”
The Dec. 18 championship game was a match of two 13-0 teams, top-ranked University of Sioux Falls versus No. 2 Carroll College. Sioux Falls entered the game as the current, two-time defending champion. They defeated Lindenwood University of St. Charles, Mo., in 2009 and in 2008 they defeated Carroll 23-7. This year the two teams were tied 7-7 at halftime and the score remained that way until the fourth quarter. With just over seven minutes remaining in the quarter, Carroll kicker Tom Yaremko’s 23-yard game-winning field goal provided the team a 10-7 victory and its sixth NAIA title in nine years.
Win or lose Carroll would have been champions to the students of St. Mary’s.
“Their character is a testament to what we try to do as Catholic schools to pass on something special to our students,” said the assistant principal and admissions director, Christa Jackson. “Our students saw what we try to teach at St. Mary’s modeled in the young men.”