There are a myriad of thoughts running through my mind about the La Grande Tigers’ state championship win — enough to fill several pages if I stopped to flesh out each one.
Some of them I may delve into more in upcoming editions of The Observer, but for today I’ll pick out three from the grab bag.
1. What a send-off for the seniors. There are 22 seniors on this squad, many of whom have been playing football together for years, even as far back as a traveling football team in fourth and fifth grade. They were driven by a goal that has been with them for about a decade now, one that was amped up by two painful quarterfinal losses in back-to-back years. They — and the rest of the team — put in an effort over the last year to improve and would not be denied the goal they set out for. The Tigers took part in three summer football camps. They went through extensive weight-training. They bled, sweated and probably cried in their efforts to get here.
Defensive coordinator Matt Wolcott called it a group willing to do whatever it took, whatever the coaches asked of them.
“If we say we need to watch film, they watch film at lunch. If we say lift weights — whatever it is. Their entire high school career they’ve been very coachable, and they execute it,” Wolcott said. “Tonight you saw them execute it. Making plays. Interceptions. Forced fumbles. Tackling. Good gang tackling.”
The group played all out for each other all season. They’ve built a dynamic family bond, and have bought into a motto that was scrawled on a shirt at one of the summer football camps: “‘We’ are greater than ‘me.’”
“We’ve been preaching that to the kids since that camp,” Wolcott said. “It’s not about any one person, it’s not about any coach, it’s about us. It’s a whole team effort.”
Senior lineman Chris Woodworth elaborated on what the motto looks like on the field.
“(It’s) all of us working together to win the game. Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to get this tackle, run this many yards, I, I, I,’ (we say) ‘we’re going to win this game.’”
It’s also a group, according to head coach Rich McIlmoil, that comes from families long invested in La Grande football, which is a part of what made the championship so special for the head coach.
“I’m just excited for these boys and this town, and for these people, and for the families,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to. We got great families and great kids in this town, and this town and these kids deserve it more than anything.”
2. Speaking of the town, did anyone stay in La Grande to make sure things stayed afloat Saturday night? I make the comment somewhat tongue in cheek, but that was a heck of a showing by the Tiger faithful, filling the entire visiting team bleachers on the north side of the field and a large swath of the home team stands on the south side next to the Banks fans. I would go as far as to say there were more La Grande fans there than at any home game this season.
The show of support is nothing new. It does help that La Grande fans had to travel only 80 miles to Hermiston, but in being fortunate enough to cover several state championship events La Grande has been a part of in the last few years, I’ve seen firsthand how far Tiger fans are willing to travel, even when they do have to go to the other side of the state.
And the group wasn’t just large. It was loud. Energetic. Almost every big play made by La Grande was greeted with a roar from both sides of the stadium.
“It was huge,” LHS defensive lineman Eli Leavitt said of the crowd. “I didn’t even realize. I knew (our side of the stadium) was full, but to know we had fans on the other side was insane.”
Well done, LHS fans. Well done.
3. This win is just the latest in what has been arguably the best run in LHS history. Look at what the Tigers have done on the athletic field since the calendar turned to 2016: A boys swimming state championship. A baseball title. A boys track state championship. Two softball titles. And now a football championship. Add two golf titles earlier in the decade, and you have eight state titles — nearly half of La Grande’s 17, in the last 10 years. That doesn’t include several other second-place team finishes, individual championships, or team titles in OSAA sanctioned events that aren’t sports — choir and band. That’s a better four-year run for the school than at any other time, and means this present senior class has been in on five championship runs (they were in eighth grade when La Grande won its last boys swimming title). It’s also over a more diverse range (six titles in five sports). The only other run for La Grande that compares was from 2001-2004, when the school won four straight swimming state titles and a boys golf title.
And this group isn’t done, either. La Grande should be in the mix for a handful of additional titles in the coming months.
“(We have) A lot of championship-caliber athletes,” La Grande School District Superintendent George Mendoza said. “That senior class has experienced winning at the baseball level, at the softball level, track level, choir level, a lot of wrestling champions. We just have a team full of players with great competitive spirit.”
La Grande is in the midst of a run that doesn’t come along often.
If you’re a Tigers’ fan or athlete, enjoy it.