Slow start, but Train still on track

03/30/02 LaCrosse Tribune
John Schimon was hoping he had a limited edition train. You know, the one that hits the tracks running at full speed and simply powers through everything.

Not one that chugs, chugs and chugs before finally getting up to full speed about midseason. A slow moving train doesn't spell fast bucks at the box office.

The La Crosse Night Train coach said "Rats" once too often a few years back, and would like nothing better than to see La Crosse's second venture into the zany world of arena football get off to a better start than the 0-10 La Crosse River Rats. Schimon and Night Train general manager Michael Grego have tried to engineer something special here, but it will take time.

So don't jump off the Night Train just yet.

A 41-21 pasting at the hands of the Lincoln Capitols on Friday night translates into an 0-2 start, but it doesn't mean the end of the world for the National Indoor Football League expansion franchise. Boxcar Willie wasn't an overnight sensation either. The fact that the Night Train's opening act went off relatively smoothly should bring fans back.

There was music. There was the "Midnight Steam," which happens to be the name of the team's cheerleading squad. There were bone-jarring hits into the thinly padded dasherboards, including one that left the Night Train's Brad Kerkhoff shaken and probably bruised, but apparently all right.

And there were fans. A total of 2,950 of them, according to the Night Train's bean counters. That was about 2,000 less than capacity, but it's a decent start. The River Rats had 3,692 fans in their debut, but that was La Crosse's first taste of indoor football.

There are some things some past fans are still chewing on - like worthless season tickets when the league folded. Those wounds will take time to heal, but most eventually will.

"The fans are our ninth guy out there. The players feed off that (crowd noise)," Schimon said of the opening night crowd. "I know the fans were behind us, and we will get better."

Professional sports, especially minor-league professional sports, require constant attention.

The La Crosse Catbirds were not an instant success in La Crosse either. It took a tremendous amount of work and perseverance on the part of guys like Ron Minegar, Ron Ekker and Flip Saunders to make it happen. It also took tremendous patience and a willingness to spend a considerable amount of money on the part of the Catbirds owners - the late Sandy Gordon, Norm Gillette and D.B. Reinhart.

The CBA's "model franchise" took time to develop, time to nurture, and time for the community to rally around it. But it did happen with the Catbirds, and to a certain degree, with the city's second CBA team, the Bobcats.

Will it happen with the Night Train?

Perhaps, but the Night Train must eventually produce on the field. Over the long haul, however, it will be people like Andy Temte, Rodney Eitland and James Larson - the owners of the Night Train - who will ultimately decide the fate and longevity of this franchise. The fans will certainly help them determine that.

And fans back winners. This team will win, said quarterback Colby Vogt. It's just a matter of time. We'll see.

"When the chemistry on this team comes together, we'll win some games. Right now, we don't have it," Vogt said. "I hope people stay with us. Hopefully it will come together in time for the next game."

We all know the league will play a role in the success - or failure - of the Night Train, too. The River Rats, for all of their shortcomings, did relatively well without much guidance or help from the league. Let's hope the NIFL is stronger and more organized than the IFL. The jury is still out on that - just look at the scheduling fiasco.

This train has just started its journey, and whether or not it steams down the track to success won't be determined by one game of Capitol punishment.

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