LA GRANDE — Neil Cooper said watching the La Grande Tigers in Saturday’s Class 4A state championship game was much more intense than the one he coached in 45 years ago.
That’s because his grandson, Payton Cooper, was among the players on the field in Hermiston as the Tigers took on, and eventually defeated, Banks, 21-0, Saturday night for La Grande’s first state football championship since that 1974 team the elder Cooper coached on.
"It’s just such a special thing to have that opportunity to play in the state championship. Being involved as a grandfather makes it a lot more emotional," Neil Cooper said. "You’re much more involved in a different way. You know what it takes to get there, and it takes a lot of work."
The 1974 team rode a stout defense to the state championship when it defeated Corvallis, 26-7, and the 2019 version of the Tigers did the same thing. In seven games between the two teams, they surrendered just 29 points.
Defense ruled the day early Saturday, and Rick Simonis, a linebacker and captain on the 1974 team, likened the early game to a different sport.
"It started out like a couple boxers, feeling each other out. I think Banks was conditioned well enough to stay with us," Simonis said. "Their front defensive line was like a brick wall."
He believed, however, that it was the La Grande team’s level of fitness that helped it pull away in the second half.
"It was obvious (the Tigers) were more conditioned," he said.
The Tigers also seemed to be better prepared to handle the cold, as they seemed minimally impacted by the gametime temperatures in the low 20s.
"I think last night the cold affected Banks a little bit," Cooper said.
The chill, however, did not dampen the enthusiasm of the multitude of fans who made the trip to Hermiston to watch the game, including Robby Shells, father of lineman Anthony Chavez, who said witnessing the victory was exciting.
"It was cold, but it was worth it," he said.
Many of the players from the ’74 team, including Mark Goss, said watching the Tigers win brought back a wave of memories.
"It’s something that will stay with them forever," he said. "The biggest deal is the camaraderie between the teammates. You’ll always have that connection."
The former defensive back was able to appreciate the efforts of the La Grande secondary as it — and the rest of the Tiger defense — shut down Banks’ potent passing offense.
"Going into this game I knew the defense was going to play a big role. I didn't think Banks had faced a defense like ours," Goss said. "Obviously they didn't perform too well with our defense."
Corky Hunt, the defensive back and quarterback's coach on the 1974 team, also was impressed with La Grande’s defense Saturday, which held Banks to 167 yards.
"I thought particularly in the second half that La Grande was so quick to the ball," he said. "When there was an opening we converged so quickly. The defense was outstanding. They were strong, but most of all I was impressed with their quickness and speed. They converged on every play with three, four, sometimes five tacklers."
The victory set off a celebration back in La Grande. The team received a police escort on its return into town — similar to the way it left for Hermiston earlier that afternoon — then was greeted by hundreds of fans packed into Local Harvest on Island Avenue for festivities that lasted well past midnight.
Brandon Zollman, father of wide receiver and defensive back Josh Zollman who was at Local Harvest, said he was jazzed up for his son and the team.
"He had such a great year," he said, adding he was pleased they played a great game.
Simonis said he recalled the way the win 45 years ago united the community, and anticipates this win will do the same.
"The thing that sticks in my mind most is the community," he said. "It really brings the community together."
Goss concluded by saying: "Congratulations to them. Enjoy the ride. It's a neat deal."