Once the pools and schedule were announced, it was clear Angola (Ind.) was out of place.
The team from Indiana was pitted against defending state champion -- and eventual tournament winner -- Daphne (Ala.) High, perennial state powers West Monroe (La.) High, Jefferson Hills (Pa.) Thomas Jefferson, Olive Branch (Miss.) High, Bastrop (La.) High, Marrietta (Ga.) Lassiter and a program poised to be on the rise, Hoover (Ala.) Spain Park. It was a murderer's row of high school powerhouses, all included the brand new RivalsHigh 100, and Angola was sure to be crushed.
The scores were indicative of the mismatch. The average margin of defeat was 24 points -- with each game played under a 22-minute running clock.
One of Angola's two victories came against the Hoover (Ala.) High junior varsity team.
To the untrained eye, this team did not belong on the field against a slew of Division I athletes. However, if those same eyes could look harder, they would have seen that this team belonged at the event more than any of the others.
The National Select 7-on-7 Championship annually brings together some of the top high school football teams in the country for the final summer passing tournament of the season.
This year, the event was different. Amid an elite showcase of talent, there was a team few had heard of: Angola (Ind.) High.
But what most didn't know was that the team that didn't fit absolutely had to be there.
"This is a team that would not have been invited to this event or even qualified if it were left to its own merit," says David Bannister, the director of marketing and sponsorships for the event. "They were going to play some of the best high school teams in the country and we didn’t expect them to fare well.
"But that wasn't the point."
Angola isn't known for high school football. It's unlikely to ever be ranked nationally. Last season -- its best in recent memory -- ended in the second round of the state 4A tournament.
It was outmatched, if not overmatched, in just about all of its games here, exiting the weekend with just two victories.
"Our kids don't understand that part of it," says Todd Herndon, the Angola defensive coordinator. "They don't care that one team is nationally ranked or one team has a bunch of Division I players. They are competitors and we are proud of them."
And even though Angola isn't a program that has any need or desire to test itself outside of the state limits, there was no hesitation about making the 650-mile trip from Northeast Indiana.
For the members of the team, the coaching staff, and the families -- in fact, the whole Angola community -- this event wasn't about football or the future, but rather a fateful event that drew them here.
Shortly after 3 p.m. on March 26, 2011, on a stretch of I-65 in Alabama between Montgomery and Birmingham, four Angola High seniors returning from a Spring Break trip to Florida were killed when a car heading southbound crossed over the median, causing a head-on collision.
The cause of the accident was not determined -- though there was heavy rain at the time. But this much was clear: It was a horrific crash. Some local witnesses described the wreck as something straight out of NASCAR.
The accident took the lives of football stars Alexx Bauer, Riley Zimmer and their best friends, Matthew Roe and Evan Weaver. All were 18 years old.
The tragedy stunned Angola, a close-knit town of just over 8,000 residents.
Grief counselors were brought to the school. A town-wide memorial service was held. A scholarship fund in the boys' names, entitled "Fourever Friends!" was started. More than $130,000 has been raised.
When Hoover learned of the incident, officials there decided to invite the Angola team to their event, feeling it may be the only way for so many in the community to get some sort of closure to the tragedy.
"We felt like it was the right thing to do," Bannister says. "The accident was just south of Hoover and it dominated the news. When our community heard that Angola was coming down, they really opened up to help another community that was hurting."
Angola head coach Luke Amstutz was touched by the offer.
"Angola isn’t much of a football town," he says. "We are getting better, but we are here to honor some of our boys and do well representing our community."
The communities of both teams have also opened their wallets to make the trip possible.
"Oh my gosh, I can't believe what they (Hoover) have done for us," Alexx's mother, Lisa, says. "They provided us a place to stay and our food. Our community raised enough money in literally no time to get us a charter bus to come here. We are blessed."
Bauer says the outpouring of concern has come from everywhere.
"The football team is getting so much attention right now because of Alexx and Riley," Lisa says. "But it is everyone: the basketball team has done things, our girls softball team, baseball, soccer, everyone really."
The National Select 7-on-7 was just another example.
"We talked to a bunch of our sponsors and local vendors to get as much covered for them as we could," Bannister says. "They brought about 100 people and we had their food provided . Some of the folks have had to stay in local churches, but we wanted to get them here and let them finish their grieving process."
Lisa and her husband Gregg made the trip to Hoover, along with nearly a dozen other families, to support the team. Their son Austin -- a 5-foot-9, 160-pound receiver -- is still on the team.
"I think he is playing well out there," Lisa says. "He doesn't talk about what happened very much even if you were to ask him."
Her husband has also been quiet.
"Gregg has dealt with a lot of anger over this," says Herndon, the defensive coordinator. "There is a football family that is hurting and there is a real family that is hurting. We have to watch over Austin, but the Bauers have another son that doesn't play football and we have to care for him, too."
Lisa does muster the strength to talk about the tragedy. She wants to celebrate the life of her son as well as mourn his loss.
"She has been amazing through this whole situation," Herndon says. "She treated his funeral like a party -- she really celebrated his life. She was ringing her cowbell the whole time and embracing the life he led, not lost. For his eulogy she held up our playbook and pulled out her notes for the speech. She is an amazing woman."
As much as the trip was to be about Alexx and the Fourever Friends, Austin and the rest of the team were still on the field competing.
"I think they are nervous," Bauer says.
The boys are still trying to cope with the loss.
"One of our best players (Robby Boots) told me he was having a hard time focusing, giving the effort," Herndon says. "He apologized to me because he wasn’t playing as hard as he needed to. I asked him why, and he told me he was just thinking about Alexx the whole time."
Alexx was the captain of the team and the only quarterback Amstutz had at the school.
"Alexx would have loved this entire thing," he says. "He lived for recruiting, he would check Rivals all the time, even though he would have been graduated by now, there is no doubt he would have come with us and watched. He just loved the game."
His ability matched his passion for the game.
"He was going to pick where he was headed to college right after the trip," his mother says. "He had five or six schools that wanted him to come play football and he was so excited."
According to the coach, he was more impressive off the field than on it.
"He was such a good kid," Amstutz says. "He always made people around him smile. The young kids on the team looked up to him, the kids in our youth program wanted to be him. He was special."
It was not a typical coach-player relationship.
"Alexx meant everything to Luke," Herndon says. "Luke treated him like a son, I mean he is only 30 himself so they were quick to bond and he has really been hit hard by what happened."
Between the morning and evening sessions on Friday, the team boarded its bus and headed to the crash site.
Tears were shed and hearts were opened. Bauer thinks it will serve as the end of another chapter to this story.
"I think it is something that everyone will need," she says. "It can bring us all together."
The 45-minute ride from Hoover was one of silence and reflection.
"The kids were very quiet and observed the spot," Herndon says. "They memorialized it and I think it gave many of them closure."
Amstutz wanted to use the trip as an opportunity to pull everyone together.
"Our community has been faced with a remarkable tragedy," he says. "We want to play with heart and character and we know those guys are with us."
So in an event where nationally ranked teams Indianapolis (Ind.) Warren Central, Loganville (Ga.) Grayson and Prattville (Ala.) High begin their preparations for the 2012 football season -- one where anything less than a state championship and a strong ranking in the RivalsHigh 100 will be considered a disappointment -- there's Angola (Ind.) High.
It is a community torn by tragedy, but able to find solace in the calming comfort of friends, family, and football.
"Our hearts are broken of course," says Lisa Bauer. "But they are being filled by all of the acts of kindness."
Dallas Jackson is the Senior High School Sports Analyst for RivalsHigh.com. Follow him on Twitter @RivalsHigh.Full Story >>