Glory Days | North Tahoe football was once pride of community
Special to the Sun
After grappling with numbers for the better part of the past decade, longtime North Tahoe head coach Scott Everist was forced to cancel the Lakers’ football season this past August after only eight players showed up for the first day of practice.
TAHOE CITY, Calif. — The football field at North Tahoe High School still looks pretty much the same as it did when the school first opened 40 years ago, neatly tucked behind the campus and nestled up against the forest.
There is now an all-weather track that didn’t exist in 1974, but the field, the stands, the goalposts and scoreboard have weathered the four decades well and seem ready to welcome the tumultuous arrival of players, fans and cheerleaders for a Saturday afternoon kickoff in the Sierra.
But in the autumn of 2014, that’s not the case.
For North Tahoe students, Saturday afternoons are now reserved for soccer, cross-country or lacrosse. After 40 years the football program was cancelled this fall when only eight players showed up for the first day of practice. The doleful decision was the culmination of a long downward spiral of dwindling enrollment.
“That’s just what it boils down to — we don’t have the numbers,” explained longtime Laker coach Scott Everist in late August. “We’ve been struggling for years. We had some kids in the spring and it looked like we had enough, but they’re just not ready to go, and we don’t have enough. It’s just a tough situation.”
The “situation” was dramatically different in North Tahoe’s early years.
When the school first opened its doors to the North Lake Tahoe community in 1974, the local economy was robust, especially in home construction, and there was a significantly larger middle-class population. Hundreds of teenagers living in Tahoe City, Kings Beach and the West Shore were now able to forgo the long commute to Truckee and start a new chapter in their lives — much closer to home.
Athletics proved to be a big part of that transition, and the fledgling school had almost immediate success, particularity in football. In only its second year of existence, the Lakers beat their former teammates from Truckee 7-6, and a year later in 1976, North Tahoe was crowned Pioneer League champions.
From 1976 through 1981, North Tahoe had a string of phenomenal success, including four consecutive Pioneer League championships, two Northern California CIF “AA” Championships and for good measure, six straight wins over arch-rival Truckee. In a very short span, a winning tradition and atmosphere had been established, which prevailed for several years.
North Tahoe went on to win a Nevada 2A state title in 1986 under coach Dave Brolliar, and from 1989 through 2001 the Lakers won 91 games under head coach Bill Freeman before the decline in enrollment started to take its inevitable toll.
THE DALTON YEARS
The architects of North Tahoe’s early success was the combine of head coach Ken Dalton, defensive coordinator John “J.D.” Deschler and assistant Shayne Wallace. All three were former collegiate players: Dalton and Wallace were teammates at Cal Poly, and Deschler played at L.A. State and USC.
Dalton took the Laker’s head coaching job following a stint with Archbishop Mitty in San Jose and Deschler came from Tamalpais High in Marin. For Wallace, North Tahoe was his first coaching opportunity. Figuratively and literally, they formed quite a team.
“Out of little North Lake Tahoe, Ken Dalton and his staff built a juggernaut,” said former Sierra Sun and Tahoe World sportswriter Allan Walker. “In three seasons he took them to the top of the hill. It was a great thing for the North Tahoe community. Saturday game days in Tahoe City were electric. It was really a fun time to be covering the program.”
Deschler, now retired and living in Tahoe Donner, credited Dalton’s work ethic, energy and positive approach as the foundation for their success.
“First we had great support from our principal Ray Bell, who believed in developing a good program. But Ken’s organization and enthusiasm was, bar none, the best,” said Deschler. “He was a no-nonsense coach and was very intense, but he also would rather have a player with a great attitude than just great talent.”
Dalton passed away from cancer in 2013 but left a lofty legacy. After leaving North Tahoe in 1982 to take the first head coaching job at McQueen in Reno, he picked up where he had left off at the lake. For his career, the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA) lists Dalton with 309 victories (including 68 wins at North Tahoe and Mitty) and six Nevada state championships to go along with the California titles. His 241 wins in Nevada placed him second only to Joe Sellers’ (Wooster/Manogue, 1976-2004) 250 wins.
“He’s firmly established as a legend in Nevada,” said Walker. “Many thought he would be first in line to replace Chris Ault at the University of Nevada, but he wanted to stay at the high school level. He loved where he was at, and his record stands on its own.”
At North Tahoe, Dalton had the talent on the field to complement the coaching expertise on the sideline. With rosters of usually 40-plus kids (the school’s enrollment was almost double back then), the Lakers not only dominated their own league, but often went out of their way to challenge bigger, out-of-area schools, beating the likes of Fallon and Carson. They even played an urban powerhouse, Central Catholic of Modesto, but lost the game.
“Ken Dalton loved a challenge,” said Walker. “He wasn’t afraid of anyone.”
Several players from that era, in addition to earning all-conference and all-CIF honors, received full college scholarships.
Tailback Pat Bitler (class of ‘77) got a full ride at Montana, linebacker/fullback Steve Ames (‘79) went to Oregon before transferring to Nevada, which also recruited quarterback Jeff Ardito (‘80), lineman Ricky Harris (‘80) and fullback/linebacker Mike Czyz (‘81).
Czyz’s older brother Tommy (‘80) played at Shasta. Running back Billy Harrison (‘80) was widely recruited by several Pac 8 schools before going to the Naval Academy, where he played behind All-American Napoleon McCallum and performed kickoff duties.
“It wasn’t uncommon to see Division I coaches in the stands,” said Deschler. “Ken was in the inner circle of Northern California coaches and they knew the program he built.”
While many of Dalton’s former players have left the area, a handful are successful local businessmen and recall their playing days with pride.
“They were ‘glory days’ for sure,” said Mike Czyz, who along with his brother Tommy, own and operate Czyz’s Appliance in Truckee, Incline and Reno. “Winning a CIF state championship, that was a highlight,” he said, “But after 30-some years we can still remember the great camaraderie we had, and how these coaches took us from boys to men.”
Charlie Soule, owner/chef of the Soule Domaine in Kings Beach, played quarterback for the Lakers in 1975 and says those were some of the best times of his life.
“Dalton, JD and Shayne brought a big-time football mentality to our little school, and they got the ‘mountain boys’ to buy in to it,” he said. “He had us playing over our heads. But I guess we had just as much testosterone as anyone else.
“I got to play at a good time,” he added. “If I saw Ken Dalton today, I’d still call him coach. I have a lot of love for that man.”
Although never a big star on the playing field, defensive back Keith Colburn (‘81) now has the leading role as the captain of the commercial fishing boat the Wizard on the “Deadliest Catch” reality television series. Colburn, who lives in Seattle, says he believes that his football days prepared him well for his current profession.
“In fishing, just like football, you need to work extremely hard before the season,” he said. “You have to make sure your crew is in shape, the equipment is in shape and the boat is in shape. It doesn’t start with the kickoff, it’s before the kickoff. You also have to plan for the unexpected.
“When I played, we had only one poster in the weight room and it said, ‘Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.’ I took a lot away from playing under those guys.”
While all the former players expressed sadness over the cancellation of the program, Kurt Frankenberg (‘81), who lives in Cedar Flat, shared an even deeper disappointment. As a North Tahoe Pop Warner coach with two young sons playing in the league, the former Laker running back says the lack of a high school football team “takes the wind out of the sails for everyone.”
“Without a high school team, it takes away some of the incentive,” he said. “We all grew up here playing Pop Warner knowing we could pursue football at the next level. What has happened is sad for me, sad for the kids, and it’s sad for the town, especially when you know the history.
“But maybe it will come back, who knows? I’m glad I was part of something very special. I just wish my kids could have that opportunity too.”
And perhaps they will.
Coach Everist has said he hopes the situation is just temporary, and he remains optimistic. While it feeds both the North Tahoe and Incline high school teams, the North Lake Tahoe Rams Pop Warner program grew this year from 53 players to 72 between its Mitey-Mite and Pee Wee teams, and president Scott Wilderman hopes to expand the number of teams in the coming years.
“It’s tough and it’s sad (about this season),” Everist said, “but we’re still hopeful that it’s going to come back. We’re not giving up by any means. We will try again next season.”
— Bill Jensen was the sports editor for the Sierra Sun from 1975-78 and also provided color commentary for KTRT-FM football games. He now runs Granite Chief Communications in Carnelian Bay.