LA GRANDE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF BERTH ENDS 12-YEAR DROUGHT

November 12, 2004 12:00 am
STATE BOUND: La Grande head coach Shea Little sends in a play during a Tiger game at Community Stadium. The Tigers face Toledo Saturday in the first round of the 3A playoffs. (The Observer/JOE SOVA).
STATE BOUND: La Grande head coach Shea Little sends in a play during a Tiger game at Community Stadium. The Tigers face Toledo Saturday in the first round of the 3A playoffs. (The Observer/JOE SOVA).

As one of four seniors on a La Grande High School football team chock-full of underclassmen, lineman Jeff McClay is the de facto team historian when it comes to La Grande playoff berths.

"I think I was like four years old the last time we went to the playoffs," McClay said. "I don't know for sure, but I know it's been a long time."

Twelve years, to be exact, although McClay's memory lapse is understandable. In 1992, he was just a kindergartner at Central Elementary School.

McClay and fellow seniors Ricky Gloria, Logan Joseph and Chase Miller are all part of a La Grande team that will be in Toledo Saturday for the first round of the OSAA 3A playoffs.

It's a playoff run, according to some of the seniors, that has its roots in a 36-0 La Grande loss to Baker midway through the season.

At the time, the defeat put the Tigers record at a very unplayoff like 1-4.

"We started hearing a lot of stuff from the community after that, stuff like ‘same old La Grande team'," McClay said. "People weren't being very supportive of us before that, but after we lost to Baker it got worse. It motivated us to start proving people wrong."

Gloria, who chose to play football his senior season after playing soccer as a junior, saw the change in the team's attitude.

"We knew we were a better team then how we were playing at the time," Gloria said. "Team-wise, we took our positives and focused on that.

"I knew that this football team was gonna be pretty good before the season started. It just took us a second to come together."

Coming together for the La Grande meant players like McClay, a two-year starter, taking a role in the development of the younger Tigers.

"That was hard at first," McClay said. "But you just try to be a leader and not get down on anybody, no matter what is going on in the game and no matter what the score is."

After the Baker loss, La Grande won three of its next four games, culminating in a 28-6 win over Mac-Hi that clinched the playoff berth.

"La Grande has become a really solid team," Mac-Hi coach Dick Bunker said. "They're going into the playoffs playing some really good football."

La Grande will face a Toledo team whose lineup features 14 seniors. Toledo lost to Junction City in the first round of the playoffs last year.

Toledo head coach Steve Brattain sees the paralells between his team from last year and this year's La Grande squad, but doesn't buy into the idea that youth necessarily equals inexperience.

"I do know that La Grande is fairly young," Brattain said. "Although, if you're a sophomore or a junior, by the time you reach the playoffs you're a player, regardless of age.

"I suppose you could say that having a lot of seniors is an advantage, but I think our two teams are very similar in structure as far as taking pride in having a defense that really gets to the ball."

Gloria and McClay both know that in order to be succesful, it's going to take a stellar effort on the part of all the Tigers, young and old.

"We've been telling everybody just to keep their heads, don't get freaked out just because it's a playoff game," McClay said. "Just treat it like it's a regular season game."

– Tony Adame