The oil boom that burst forth in western North Dakota seven years ago had both positive and negative effects on the region. While the increase in wealth and new opportunities for young people were welcomed, they brought along with them increased crime and congestion.
But this fall, the town of Alexander, N.D., is celebrating one unexpected upside of the oil boom: the Alexander Comets.
The Comets are a six-man football team (the school is still too small for an 11-man team). This is the students’ first season playing, and the town’s first season in 28 years.
“Because of the oil boom, we now have a football team,” said Kevin Clausen, who coaches the team in between his weeks living on an oil well pad.
Before the boom began, there were only 55 kids in the entire K-12 school, and no varsity sports. Like so many towns that dot the Great Plains, Alexander was shrinking as farms grew larger and more mechanized while young people moved away.
“It’s kind of shocking to hear, ‘You don’t have enough people so you can’t be a school,’ ” 10th-grader Grace Nelson remembers about hearing her parents discuss the school’s possible closing. “‘Cause, school is family. That’s like saying you can’t be with your family every day.”
The town has grown by 60 percent since 2008, and there are now more than 200 students enrolled in the school. And they’re still coming, despite low oil prices and thousands of layoffs. But there’s a downside. The roads are much more dangerous now with all the oil traffic, and many people here say they have a complicated relationship with the oil field.
Mayor Jerry Hatter struggles with that relationship every day.
“I hate the fact that I can drive … places that there was never anything and it’s nothing but solid pumping units and roads and traffic,” said Hatter. “It’s changed the landscape. But it’s [also] given me a lot.”
Back in the day, Hatter played football, too, for a much larger high school in Montana. He wishes he could’ve been on a small, tight-knit team like the Comets.
“I mean, these kids here, they have the ultimate experience,” he said. “I hope they do good. It’s gonna be a tough year for them.”
The first game of the season had a coincidentally perfect backdrop: the Old Settlers Days festival, an annual tradition that started in 1946 as a way to bring people in the community together to eat, dance, drink and socialize as the autumn harvest winds down.
At this first game, the Comets faced their opponents, the Rangers, a team from a small high school in Eastern Montana. The Rangers were more practiced than the Comets, who were quickly identified as the underdogs. However, the fans didn’t seem to mind. They cheered at every tackle, many watching the game from the backs of their pickup trucks, holding each other’s babies and visiting.
LeAnna Halvorson-Dean grew up in Alexander and missed the sense of community during the 28 years without local football to watch.
“Farmers, ranchers, you get caught up in your lives and you lose track, and it’s nice to have everybody back,” she said.
Listening to the crowd, you’d never know the Comets lost, 65 to 18. Because in Alexander, just having football back is a huge victory.