Home-field advantage, an edge for any team, is something to be thankful for in sports. It's familiar territory, with louder fans and perhaps a better chance to win.
A rural Colorado high school football team in Branson is particularly thankful for their home-field advantage after nearly losing it.
It takes four hours by car from Denver to get to this southeastern Colorado town. Add a few more minutes to the drive, and you're in a different state.
"That's New Mexico, the tops of those mesas," said Brad Doherty, athletic director at Branson School.
Branson is a place where the sun brings out just about every color, except one: green.
"We are standing on the Branson Bearcat football pasture field." Brad said when 9NEWS visited earlier this year. "This is way greener than it is during the season, by any stretch of the imagination."
Doherty acknowledged that the playing surface wasn't ideal for tackle football.
"I understand coaches being leery to play out here," Brad said. "You can't really tell where the field stops and the pasture starts. We've removed the rocks and the cactuses, but it's a field in the natural sense of the word."
Chapter 1: Doherty family history
Doherty is one of Branson's 49 residents. His wife Jody, Mrs. Doherty the science teacher, is another.
"I didn't even know Branson, Colorado, existed until I met my husband," Jody Doherty said.
Brad's family roots run deep in Branson and at the school.
"John Doherty was in the class of 1944," Brad said. "And his sweetheart, my grandma Joanne Horner, and she was in the class of 1946. My dad, Ben Doherty, was in the class of 1967."
And there were more, including Brad, who was a member of the class of 1994.
"I've got aunts and uncles on that, that graduated in the '70s and '80s," Brad said. "I have a sister in that picture and a sister in that picture."
That gets us to the current generation.
"My oldest kid, sometimes at school, he'll call me Ms. Mom," Jody said.
She's talking about Brody, the oldest of three Doherty boys and the school's starting quarterback.
"It's not like growing up anywhere else, and you're exposed to so many different things than you would in a big city," Brody Doherty said.
Those different things didn't include a lush, green football field.
Chapter 2: Not enough water, too many gophers gophers
The six-man football team that calls the field in Branson home is a mashup of Branson School and Kim School, located 40 miles away.
"I definitely prefer playing here, but when you do go other places that have grass, your cleats get a little bit of a shoeshine," Brody said.
His dad agreed that playing on the road was very different from home games. That's because every other team they play has more water.
"Every other team we play has a pretty decent, nice grass field," Brad said. "There's nobody in a situation like ours. Everybody is either sitting on top of an aquifer, which we're not, or they're next to a river in the Arkansas Valley, which we're not."
Branson gets its water from five springs with an output totaling about 14,000 gallons a day.
"To water a new sod field, ideal circumstances, you'd use about 30,000 gallons of water a day," Brad said. "Obviously, we can't water double of what we don't have."
That leaves the field patchy with brown grass and dirt spots, according to senior wide receiver Isaac Provost. But he still takes pride in Branson's home-field advantage.
"Hearing other people talk about it is definitely my favorite part of this field," Isaac said. "They say, 'Oh, this field is crap. How do you guys play on this? This is the worst field I've ever seen.' "
Defenders aren't the only obstacles that need to be avoided. There's another hazard unique to the field: gopher holes.
"I'd say within a 20-foot radius of me, there's probably a dozen to two dozen active gopher holes," Brad said while standing on the field. "They taunt me. It's a battle."
"They're sneaky little boogers," Brody said.
"I love all of God's creatures, except gophers," said Brad, who is also the local church pastor. "Except gophers."
But it turns out Brad's problem was bigger than any gopher hole.
Chapter 3: Granada High School coach speaks out
"One of the coaches spoke up and said they were concerned about the field conditions here in Branson and they were no longer going to play," Brad said. "They refused to come and play unless we made significant improvements to the field."
If the grass is always greener, then Granada High School Football Coach Traegon Marquez lives on the other side.
"No, I wouldn't say I'm the bad guy in the slightest," Marquez said. "No, no, I don't think so. Man, I just wanted what was best for the kids, even for their kids, too."
Marquez and his team played an away game at Branson in 2020 and shared his concerns with Granada's athletics director.
"It's kind of like kids just playing in the back of a junk yard," Marquez said. "While our junior high was warming up, I took a picture of it on my phone and I sent it to him, and I said, 'This is what we're playing on, you need to write it up.'"
It sounded a little like this.
"Upon his arrival at the field, he found stone pieces of cement on the playing surface," Marquez said. "This in itself presents some major safety issues."
He wasn't the only one complaining to the Colorado High School Activities Association. Other schools used words like deplorable, less than adequate and unsafe. Marquez was the first to say it out loud during a Zoom post-season conference call.
"As far as, like, player safety, I don't think anybody was really looking forward to going there," Marquez said. "As far as the field play, I didn't want to see us going down there again, or necessarily anybody."
"That particular coach spoke up, and then about six or seven others spoke up and expressed the same opposition and refusal to play here," Brad said. "Completely caught me off guard. I was angry, shocked, insulted, offended, all of that."
"I know it came across and rubbed the wrong way," Marquez admitted.
Chapter 4: Raising money for a new field
"This is my hometown," Isaac said. "I love the people here. I love the community feel. It would definitely suck a little bit to not play here."
Their options were to either play their home games on someone else's field or find money for new turf.
Instead of being defensive, the team went on offense by going on YouTube.
"It's hard to ask for money for sports when there are so many bigger things happening in our country and in our culture right now," Brad said. "Almost half a million dollars in three months is pretty awesome stuff."
Turns out it wasn't hard at all.
"Four-thousand people from across the country have donated to make this happen, and we just want people to be a part of it now," Brad said.
"It's pretty cool to see all the people come out and support our little community," Isaac said.
But raising the money was just the first down.
> Video below from January 2021: Next with Kyle Clark features Branson School's effort for a new football field through the Word of Thanks micro-giving campaign.
Chapter 5: Building the new field
Second down was getting the field built in time for the 2021 season.
Kent Hartman found the original field off-kilter, once he found it.
"In fact, I asked Brad on the phone, 'Branson, Missouri?' " Hartman said. " 'No, Branson, Colorado.' And I said, 'Where's that?' "
As Hartman got a geography lesson, he returned the favor with some basic geometry.
"We came in and squared everything up on the Pythagorean theorem, so the kids out there that think they're never going to use that in math class, they do," Hartman said.
Help even came from volunteers who knew where to find Branson, like Andy Castillo.
"The kids are important," Castillo said. "They weren't going to let them play any more games here, so we decided we could help out what we can. Our grandsons play out here, or go to school out here, so we volunteered to build all these parts. The goal posts. The scoreboard. The announcer stand."
All just in time for the home opener.
Chapter 6: Game day
A six-man high school football game in far southeast Colorado usually wouldn't be expected to generate much traffic on a 90-degree day.
Then again, who thought the school could raise half a million dollars and build the field of their dreams without missing one home game?
On a day too hot to be watering a lawn, Branson didn't need to.
"It's gorgeous," Brad Doherty said "It's more than I could have ever hoped for."
Branson-Kim had to find something besides dirt to kick around.
"They're playing good," Castillo said. Call it payback for all his work.
Even though six-man football games often ending with basketball-like scores, the team's performance in the first half was impressive.
"The math up there on the board says Branson is winning and is going to win today," Hartman said.
With proper care for the artificial turf field, Hartman won't have to find Branson again for at least 12 years.
"They've got a better product than a lot of schools in Denver have," Hartman said. "The big schools in Denver don't have turf this good on their field."
The field continues to be named after Brad Caldwell, the school's first coach and the school district's current superintendent. In a way, maybe the field should be named for the coach that inspired the change.
"No, I don't think so," Marquez said. "I've had some questions asking if they were. Even some people saying, well at least name the opposing sideline after you."
"So, I really do thank him for being our villain," Brad Doherty said. "Without him speaking up for his players, we would not have done this."
"This" being the home game that almost didn't happen.
"It's the greenest thing for about 100 miles," Provost said.
Even with no dirt and no mud, the Bearcats still left their print on the field.
"The fact that I had the first passing touchdown on this field, I mean, is pretty awesome," Brody Doherty said. "And I threw it to my brother, which is awesome, man."
"No one will complain about gophers, or squiggly lines, or dirt in their faces ever again," Brad Doherty said. "And that makes me smile."
The Bearcats aren't stopping with the new field. The money they raised will also pay for a walking path and a shaded pavilion.
The team went 2-and-1 at home this year, and 6-and-3 overall. They lost in the first round of the playoffs.
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