Gridiron rivals celebrate 30 years
Sun News Service
Seventeen miles separate North Tahoe High from Truckee-Tahoe High.
It’s a distance close enough for students to grow up playing Pop Warner football and AYSO soccer together. It’s a distance short enough for students to attend the same parties on weekends. It’s a space small enough for students to know one another’s families ” moms, dads and sisters. It’s such a short distance, in fact, friendships bridge it.
But on one Saturday each year, those short 17 miles become more distant than the land dividing the Hatfields and McCoys. That’s when the North Tahoe and Truckee communities show their true colors: Truckee bleeds red, and North Tahoe bleeds blue.
Put them on opposite sides of the field and throw a pigskin in the middle, and all of a sudden youthful memories fade, parties recede, families disappear and friendships evaporate. Welcome to the basin’s biggest gridiron rivalry: North Tahoe versus Truckee; Truckee against North Tahoe.
This Saturday, the basin’s most enduring football rivalry reaches a landmark: It turns 30 years old.
North Tahoe has won nine times while Truckee has won 20, including every game since 1988. But seventeen consecutive losses hasn’t sucked any intensity out of this annual matchup.
“We always feel records go out the window when these two teams play,” Wolverines’ coach Bob Shaffer said last year. “It’s always a battle from start to finish.”
And no one from Truckee or North Tahoe expects anything less from “The Little Big Game.”
The matchup began in 1974, North Tahoe’s inaugural year. For a quarter century before then, all North Shore students traveled to and from Tahoe-Truckee High for school. However, population shifts called for a new high school and the creation of North Tahoe High split Tahoe-Truckee in half. It also left Truckee with few returning football players.
“There was more talent over there ” more people and more guys,” said Gene Ratto, who came out for football and played running back and defensive back in his senior year, 1974, to help fill Truckee’s roster. “Thinking back, we were pretty much the underdogs.”
Because half the kids on the North Tahoe team went to Truckee and wore red the season before 1974, the rivalry was practically automatic. However, the result of the first game set it in stone.
Despite their underdog status, coach John Stewart’s Truckee team rose past Ken Dalton’s Lakers ” a team made up mostly of players who wore red the season before. Surprise Stadium lived up to its name in that first meeting when a fired-up Truckee squad rolled past their “big brothers” for a 22-6 win.
The loss may have been enough, but Dalton made sure the rivalry would continue forever.
“I can remember being on the sideline and watching [Truckee and North Tahoe] players pick each other up,” said Steve Ames, a North Tahoe freshman during the inaugural game. “Dalton grabbed me by the shoulder and goes, ‘We’re never going to help another Truckee player up as long as I’m here.'”
Over the years, the series would produce some of the best gridiron talent in the Sierra Nevada.
Mike Beebe, the Lakers’ quarterback who broke his ankle scoring in the 1987 game, went on to play quarterback at University of California-Berkeley. Shawn Price, a linebacker from the same team, spent a decade (1992-2002) in the NFL playing for the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers.
Former North Tahoe running back Steve Ames earned a Division I scholarship to Oregon State and went on to play well for Santa Rosa Junior College and University of Nevada, Reno.
For Truckee, brothers Dan and David DeCoite went on to have successful college careers at University of Montana, and current University of Nevada, Las Vegas punter Gary Cook has averaged 41.6 yards per punt since 2002. These are just a few of the names that have found success on the gridiron outside the Tahoe area.
The memorable names linger on for both teams: Don Self, Emitt Tracy, Steve Ames, Rick Harris, Dike Munday, Che Walker, Kris Rendon, Shawn and Aaron Wallace, Dan and David DeCoite, Rusty Stokes, Pat Bitler, Toby Trujillo, Steve Jones, Chris Cooper, David Larson, Jeff Dodge, Tom Kandel, Mike Prado, Mike Vincent, Casy Nelson, Kevin Schlesinger, Sean McNally, Billy and Kevin Freeman, Brett Brolliar, Jason Ames, Taylor Nichols, Andrew Cross, Justin Garcia, coach Dick Curtis, Jose Cruz, Matt Young.
That’s just a few, but the legacy left by all the players is eternal and timeless.
On the sidelines, men like Dalton and Stewart may have started the rivalry, but other field generals have left their mark: Ron Estabrook, Bill Freeman, Skip Piechocinski, Gary Nichols, Scott Everist and Bob Shaffer have all guided the ebb and flow of the series.
Some coaches have even switched sides, like John Deschler, the Lakers first assistant who went on to coach at Truckee in the mid-’80s, and Dave Brolliar, who helped Truckee to its first Nevada state title in 1983, only to begin coaching the Lakers in 1984.
During those 29 games, strange tales have emerged. A North Tahoe mother is rumored to have dressed a turkey in Truckee colors, parading it around on the sideline, only to butcher it after the Lakers won and serve it to some of the players for dinner.
According to Deschler, the teams used to exchange a small statue that would go to the winner of The Little Big Game each year. Because North Tahoe came to dominate the series in the early years, winning six out of the first seven, Lakers players ended up burning the statue in a bonfire.
North Tahoe players have been known to receive random gifts as the game draws nearer. Whether it was pansies and cream puffs with notes referring to the Lakers as weak or a piece of turf with the note: “This is as close as you’ll get to our end zone” ” the message was always clear ” “We wanted those kids to get fired up,” former coach Bill Freeman said.
No moment may have fired the kids up more than when Freeman strolled to the sidelines sporting a newly-minted blue mohawk he let his 1999 team shave into his head.
“I asked myself, ‘What can I do to further motivate these guys to go out on the field and give everything they’ve got?'” Freeman wrote in a guest column in the Tahoe World. “I heard a voice telling me, ‘If you shave yourself a blue mohawk, they will play.'”
Play they have. The teams may have moved from California’s Pioneer league to the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA) in the early ’80s, then from the 2A to the 3A in the mid-’90s, but the rivalry has remained constant. So continual, in fact, former Lakers are now watching their sons play for Truckee.
Steve Ames, who batted a Truckee pass to set up an interception and touchdown for the Lakers in the 1976 game, moved to Truckee in 1985 and has coached freshmen and junior varsity football on-and-off ever since. Ames watched his son, Jason, spend three years wearing the Wolverines’ varsity red (2000-02), and he now finds himself on a different side than his playing days.
“A couple years ago, it was kind of weird seeing my son in a Truckee uniform,” Ames said. “I was always kind of hurt that he didn’t play for North Tahoe.”
Ames has guided the Wolverines’ JV to an 8-0 record this season, but he won’t be fully satisfied unless North Tahoe is the ninth and final victim.
“I’d rather be 0-8 and beat North Tahoe than be 8-0 and lose to North Tahoe,” he said. “That’s how much it means.”
Others, like Mike Vincent, the Lakers 1984 tackle, and Beebe, the team’s 1987 quarterback, cringe at the idea of watching their young sons play for Truckee.
“By God, if my son plays for Truckee,” Beebe said, “that would be some weird twist of fate. Wearing red would be awful tough.”
Sure, maybe the results over the last 30 years may be a bit lopsided. And, yes, Truckee’s winning streak shows no sign of abating in the near future. But don’t look for this rivalry to die any time soon.
The clash is too steeped in tradition. It runs as deep as the lake around which it’s played out. Consistent winning can’t stop that. It might even fuel it.
“This rivalry won’t die,” current Lakers’ head coach Scott Everist said. “It can’t. If you’ve won for 17 straight years, you sure don’t want to be the squad to lose.”
— Sierra Sun sports editor Matt Brown contributed to this story.
* Preview of 2004 North Tahoe/Truckee game:
* Personal account of first-ever North Tahoe/Truckee game:
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