VIRGINIA – For the last 20 years, John Kemppainen has been announcing football games at Ewens Stadium in Virginia.
Beginning Monday, demolition will start on the football stadium and track complex (named after Dr. Harry B. Ewens) that was built in 1980 and was home to numerous special athletic accomplishments.
“I’m going to miss it,’’ Kemppainen said in a telephone interview. “I enjoyed it for 20 years. We had good times.’’
The biggest thing, though, for the 1962 Virginia graduate was talking to the student-athletes as they passed through the program.
“The kids are good and fun to talk to. I enjoyed their conversations.’’
One of those players was Ed Cremers, who helped lead the Blue Devils to the State Tournament in 1995 as a junior, and returned later to be the head coach from 2007 through 2018.
“I had a lot of great moments on that field both as a player and a coach,’’ said Cremers.
“Going to state as a player was pretty awesome,’’ he said, especially because he had two younger cousins and a younger brother (in grades 8-12) also playing on the team. His father Duane and uncle Dale Cremers were also coaches on the squad.
“Going to state as a player was pretty awesome,’’ he said. “It was fun. It was nice to have my family there.
The Blue Devils were somewhat fortunate to even make it to state that season. Fifth-seeded Virginia was kind of on the playoff bubble (only the top four teams advanced to the postseason) and needed to win their last game against Cloquet and hope for another team to lose.
The Blue Devils did their part and got the win at Ewens Field, but they had to wait 15 minutes before the other game results were announced over the loudspeaker. Virginia heard the result it needed, which moved them up to the fourth seed and set off a celebration on the field.
Jeff Teasck, a senior that season, remembers the celebration well. “Everyone was going nuts.’’
It was even more special because no one had any special expectations for the team that year, Teasck said. The special team continued its run with playoff wins at No. 1 Proctor and International Falls to secure their trip to state.
“We had an amazing group of seniors. The kids were tough,’’ said Teasck. “We just had a blast that season.’’
After graduation, Ed Cremers became the new Blue Devils head coach about 10 years later.
Heading into the fall of 2007 (his first season), Cremers knew he wanted a new start for the program and the stadium, which included making sure opponents knew Ewens Stadium was the home of the Blue Devils once they stepped off the bus.
To show the Blue Pride, the cedar slats were taken out of the exterior fencing and replaced with blue slats. Stadium doors were also painted blue and special Blue Devil signage was put up.
“It was a big job at first,’’ Cremers said, but Athletic Director Kerry Bidle was a big proponent, while former player Brandon Seppala of Pohaki Lumber helped to get the materials. “We took a lot of pride in that field.’’
With the changes made, Cremers and his staff had Virginia in the section title game in 2009 and 2010 (which was an undefeated season). “That was definitely a fond coaching time.’’
Cremers has mixed emotions seeing the stadium dismantled before Monday’s demolition begins.
“It’s sad to see, but it’s kind of exciting to see all the changes that are going to be made’’ when Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert combine in 2023 at the new Rock Ridge high school.
Cremers supports the change and says football is definitely a numbers game. “It’s better for both programs coming together. Together it can get a little bit more consistent’’ and new traditions can be developed, he added.
Teasck added that he has “a lot of special memories’’ at Ewens Field as a player and a coach. He remains in contact with many of the former players, which made it harder to see the stadium being taken apart piece by piece.
“I got a little teary. It was just a special kind of somber moment.’’
The 1996 graduate is looking forward to the future with the new school and athletic fields. At the same time, “it’s hard to say goodbye to the old.’’
Jeff Wallner, a 1979 Virginia graduate has connections to both the current Ewens Stadium complex and the former Ewens Field, which was built at the northwest corner of Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street North in 1910. Ewens Field, first known as Oliver Park, had grandstand seating for 800 and was used until the current athletic complex opened in September of 1980, according to the Virginia Historical Society. The city purchased the field from the Oliver Iron Mining Company, and it was later acquired by the school district. The site was called the Virginia Ball Park and Athletic Field until it was named for Dr. Ewens (a Virginia physician and longtime school board member) in September 1951. The old field is now occupied by Super One Foods.
Wallner played at the original Ewens Field throughout his varsity career and even got to play there as a seventh-grader in the early 1970s. “It was such a big deal for us as seventh-graders’’ in pony league football. “It was a huge deal to play on that field.’’
Years later, Wallner turned into a “huge football fan,’’ coached some with Teasck and former head coach Rick Erickson and didn’t miss a Virginia home game from 2001-2016. He enjoyed watching the young players turn into good football players and then starters. He also looked on as his sons Kane and Tyler put on the Virginia blue and white.
His feelings are mixed, as well, thinking about the stadium going away.
“It brings tears to your eyes. So many memories.’’
Looking to the future, though, he said, “this is for the best. We can build on this and make something special.’’
Kemppainen ahs fond memories of the original Ewens Field, as well. He watched a few football games over there and also played his junior and senior years of baseball there on the dual purpose field. As he remembers it, the left field fence was 235-240 feet from home plate, while the right field fence was about 450 feet based on how the football bleachers were built.
As a junior, he recalled reaching the region semifinals in Hinckley, where they lost 1-0 in 11 innings to Pine City.
“We had a pretty decent team,’’ Kemppainen said. “There was good memories down at the old Ewens Field.’’
The Virginia sports aficionado said he also got to watch the last outdoor hockey game – also at Ewens Field – before the Blue Devils went indoors to the Miners Memorial Arena around 1959. Virginia pulled out a 4-2 win over International Falls, he added, which dramatically outshot the home team.
Despite all the tradition and memories, “it’s about time’’ for the new school and athletic facilities for Rock Ridge High School, Kemppainen said. “I’m glad for it myself. It’s about education, not sports.’’
Prior to the start of the stadium demolition on Monday, Virginia Athletic Director Josh Lamppa said an online auction was held to sell off things like the fencing, the bleachers, the storage/coaches building across from the grandstands and even the flagpole.
The Ewens Field name and “Home of the Blue Devils’’ signs came down Friday.
The fall of 2020 will also be the last year for Virginia football, Lamppa said. Two home games will be played in Eveleth and two others will be played at Mesabi East’s new field, he added. Practices are scheduled to be held at the former Mountain Iron-Buhl field in downtown Mountain Iron.
Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert will be combined as Rock Ridge for the 2021 season, according to Lamppa. All games will then be played in Eveleth. Following that, games will be played at the new Rock Ridge field beginning in 2023. Next spring, the combined Rock Ridge track and field team will primarily compete in away meets but the schools are looking at options for local schools to host home meets.