Yesterday’s champions: Best bets for winning a state football title before the playoffs

What if the biggest high school football game in Yakima’s history didn’t end the season in 1964?

What if, after Eisenhower edged Davis 14-7 in a duel of unbeatens, the top-ranked Cadets faced Spokane champion Lewis & Clark in the state quarterfinals? Then Sumner in the semifinals and Blanchet for the championship?

That’s something we’ll never know since the state didn’t create postseason playoffs until 1973. Prior to that, mythical state champions were determined by the Associated Press with a polling of sportswriters and broadcasters. If you ended up No. 1, which almost always unleashed a barrage of heated debate, your school was engraved on the Cliff Warling traveling trophy and it remained in your trophy case for a year.

Eisenhower’s 1964 team was spared much controversary because it was just that good, hauling in 21 of the 28 first-place votes in a 9-0 season that saw five seniors, including the state’s offensive player of the year, land Pac-8 scholarships.

But what if?

Here’s the hard truth: What 47 years of state playoffs has proven is how incredibly difficult it is to win a title. If not for Prosser’s four-championship dynasty, the Valley would have just two — Ellensburg in 1973 and Toppenish in 1989. It’s not that we didn’t have the opportunity in the Kingdome or Tacoma Dome, but 16 teams from the Valley have returned home with a runner-up trophy.

With all this in mind, who might have had the best shot at an actual on-field state championship before 1973? Surveying local standings from 1972 back to 1950 found 22 teams that were unbeaten and untied.

These are dangerous waters to wade into, but let’s do it anyway with a ranking of the 10 most likely candidates in those Space Age years. There are plenty of challenges in creating such a list, and the biggest is dealing with the classification structure, which gets more and more limited the further back you go.

Four classes (AAA, AA, A, B) became three (AA, A, B) in 1967 and then two (AA, A) in 1957. It was not uncommon in the early ‘60s for some teams to compete in leagues with schools five or six times larger. See Wapato’s 1960 team, as an example.

While we have six classifications as the playoffs close in on their 50th anniversary, I assembled this list based on the format of the day. That means whatever league and opponents were in play — and whatever state poll teams were ranked in — was the measuring stick.

So here’s my list of slam dunks and sure things. It’s solid, unless you ask me tomorrow.

1, Eisenhower, 1964

Yes, these Cadets were just that good.

Even with fleet-footed Steve Dale, who spearheaded a triple-option offense with 19 touchdowns and went on to star at USC, this team was built on defense. While Ike rolled up 50 touchdowns, they allowed only seven during a 9-0 season. Only Walla Walla managed double digits (12) and only Davis converted a PAT.


Clayton Frazier, Eisenhower football coach

Davis was the state’s AA poll leader most of the season, with its crosstown rival No. 2, and entered the season-ending clash averaging 34 points. Even though the game was statistically even on offense, Clayton Frazier’s defense came up with three interceptions and returned one for a score.

The Pirates, who the following winter won the 1965 state basketball title with a 25-0 record, ended up fourth in the final poll and probably could’ve made a deep run as well. Two Seattle schools, both 9-0, were sandwiched between the Yakima duo with Roosevelt No. 2 and Blanchet No. 3.

This wasn’t the highest a Davis team finished in the poll. In Dutch Schulz’s first season in 1959, a year after the program didn’t win a game, the Pirates went 8-1 and ended up No. 2 behind Garfield. The only blemish was a 7-6 loss to Ike.

In addition to Eisenhower, Roosevelt and Blanchet, No. 5 Sumner (10-0) and No. 6 Lake Washington (8-0) were also unbeaten AA teams in 1964.

2, Ellensburg, 1970

This was the beginning of the remarkable reign of the Bulldogs and coach Shorty Bennett, who produced three unbeaten teams in four years and won 40 of 42 games from late 1969 to early ‘74.


Blaine “Shorty” Bennett coached Ellensburg to state titles in the AP poll in 1970 and 1972, and in 1973 when playoffs began.

This crew survived a 7-6 squeaker over Carroll in Week 3 but then steamrolled to its 10-0 finish, which included a “Bring on Curtis!” chant after beating Selah 34-14.

It was a wild last three weeks for the AA poll, which saw Curtis rise to No. 1 when it knocked off previous pace-setter Sumner with a week left. But in the final tally, Ellensburg picked up nine first-place votes and edged Curtis by one ballot point, 94-93.

Bennett had plenty of weapons with Steve Shaw and Pat Fitterer scoring 13 touchdowns apiece and Mark Kayser throwing for 1,221 yards. In the showdown for the Mid-Valley title, Ellensburg prevailed 27-13 over Toppenish — which ended up 9-1 and ranked fifth.

At a recent gathering between this team and the ‘72 squad (read on), there was a concession — not naming names here — that the ‘70 bunch was the better team. Any any rate, they both finished No. 1 in the poll leading up to Ellensburg’s actual playoff title in ‘73.

3, Wapato, 1960.

Who could’ve stopped the 8-0 Wolves and, more specifically, who could’ve stopped Bill Douglas?


Wapato’s Bill Douglas went on to guide Washington to a berth in the 1964 Rose Bowl.

Wapato’s star quarterback, who became a Husky legend as a three-year starter at Washington, directed an option attack that no one could handle. When Davis was ranked No. 1 in the state, Douglas ran for two scores, passed for two, booted four conversions and Wapato walloped the Pirates 40-20.

A week later, before at home crowd of 3,500, the Wolves blanked Eisenhower 20-0.

Douglas and the Wolves didn’t lose a game in 1959 and 1960, and when Wapato closed out its ‘60 campaign with a 52-13 win over Toppenish the program’s win streak reached 24.

Being a smaller school, poll voters took some convincing. But after dispatching Davis and Ike, Wapato vaulted to No. 2 and stayed there, finishing just five ballot points behind Everett. Davis was No. 9 with its only loss to coach Bill Faller’s crew.

Two years later, Douglas took over as UW’s quarterback in the third game and lost only to eventual national champion USC. He engineered shutout victories over Kansas State, Stanford, California and UCLA.

4, Naches Valley, 1963

What stands out about this team, aside from being 9-0 and ranked No. 1 in Class A, is that the Rangers were completely unchallenged against a schedule loaded with much larger schools.


Jake Borck, Naches Valley coach

Deployed in Jake Borck’s trademark single-wing offense, Naches barreled through defenses for 45 touchdowns, 30 of which came from fullback Dale Tester and wingback Terry Fewel.

When it came time for the annual league showdown with rival Marquette in Week 8, the Rangers turned in their best effort of the season with a 33-0 shutout. The closest anyone got was 20 points and that was Wapato (32-12) and Prosser (33-13).

Naches Valley claimed 14 of the 23 first-place votes in the final poll with No. 2 Colville claiming seven. Colville (8-0) was eager to prove itself and asked the Rangers for a postseason game but they declined, as did Castle Rock and Clarkston.

Can’t recall when your school won that state title? Need to settle a bet? One place for decades of Valley sports.

Borck retired from coaching in 1968 and then returned for the ‘72 and ‘73 seasons, just as the playoffs were starting. He was an outspoken critic of the postseason, believing it extended an already long and difficult season for kids and overly emphasized a win-at-all-costs philosophy. Borck, who called this the best team he ever had, amassed a 120-80-5 record in 23 seasons.

5, Ellensburg, 1972

Having a 9-0 record, 42-point scoring average and future Notre Dame receiver Dan Kelleher was enough to make the Bulldogs a title contender in the final year of the poll era.

But what would’ve made them especially difficult to handle was their balance. While Kelleher was a menace on the ground, junior quarterback Jeff Hammermeister also threw for a Valley-best 19 touchdowns.

Still, Kelleher was the kind of freak talent that could carry a team through a playoff run. Not only did he lead EHS to a state basketball title in ‘72, he also dominated the ‘73 state track meet with wins in the 100, 220 and 440 and the anchor leg on the winning mile relay.

Bennett’s ‘72 team was ranked No. 1 all season but it wasn’t easy. In the final tally, the Bulldogs edged 10-0 Curtis by three ballot points. What’s impressive is that Bennett graduated Kelleher and five other all-leaguers and still reloaded enough, with the help of Hammermeister’s return, to capture the first AA playoff title in ‘73.

Ellensburg could’ve had three teams in this rankings (piling on!) because Hall of Fame coach Stub Rowley had a 9-0 squad in 1957 that finished second to Garfield in the AA poll by a single ballot point.

6, Prosser, 1968

After graduating the Valley’s top scorer, Mike Huard, you’d think the Mustangs would tail off a bit. All they did was replace him with another scoring leader — junior Randy Ammerman.

And then plow through the Mid-Valley League, finish 9-0 and claim all 24 first-place votes to sit atop the final AA poll.


Bucky Bruns, Prosser standout

In the second season of an 11-year run at Prosser, coach Dennis Rath’s ‘68 team was supremely athletic. Not only was Ammerman a chore to handle, averaging seven yards a crack on his way to 19 touchdowns, but senior quarterback Bucky Bruns matched the 19 scores in the air.

Bruns led the Mustangs to a state basketball title in 1967 and still holds the school’s career scoring record.

Prosser put up 100 more points than the next highest-scoring team in the Valley, and after getting by Toppenish 20-19 in Week 3 the Mustangs outscored the rest of their opponents 211-34.

With a nice nod to author John Steinbeck, the Prosser Record-Bulletin called this team the “Greats of Rath” after dominating the final state poll.

7, Marquette, 1964

In six seasons from 1962 to 1967, Tom O’Brien’s Squires were 47-4-3 with three unbeaten teams. This defensive powerhouse appears to have been the best from that trio, at least in the opinion of voters and despite losing standout senior Scott McDonald to a broken leg.

After closing out a 9-0 season with a third shutout, beating Central Catholic 26-0, Marquette garnered 18 of 27 first-place votes and easily held off Colville (8-0) for the A poll title. What a year it was for Yakima, which also saw Eisenhower win the AA crown.

Marquette came close in 1962, finishing No. 2 at 9-0, and in 1966, ending up No. 3 at 8-0-1. The Squires’ big Valley A League rival in these years was Naches Valley, which was the reigning state champion. The Rangers gave Marquette everything it could handle in ‘64, falling 14-13, and finished No. 5.

Senior quarterback Ed LaBissoniere was the triggerman for the clock-chewing offense, scoring a team-high nine touchdowns, including three on punt returns, while throwing for 11 scores.

McDonald healed up and was the MVP of the state A basketball tournament, where Marquette polished off a 26-0 season.

8, East Valley, 1961

Nobody could come close to slowing down force-of-nature Fred Lenseigne, who as a senior led the Red Devils to a third straight unbeaten season.

The 195-pound fullback broke Valley season and career records for most touchdowns (28, 51) and points (168, 306). His 28 scores this season stood as a Valley record for 51 years. Making the Red Devils even tougher is that senior quarterback Larry Johnson threw for an area-best 12 scores.

Coach Don Smith’s crew outscored its first four opponents 130-21 and when it concluded the 9-0 season with a 54-7 win over Highland, the program’s win streak was pushed to 27 games.

The pollsters were in love with Eastmont in 1961 with the No. 1 Wildcats (8-0) pulling in 15 of 24 first-place votes with Pullman (8-0-1) edging East Valley for second.

There were five unbeaten A teams that season with four on the eastside. Mead and Camas both got three first-place votes. My how times — and populations — have changed.

9, White Swan, 1962

In his first year coaching the Cougars, LaRoy Rath hit the jackpot with the most prolific offense the Valley had ever seen. And the defense was pretty darn good, too.


LaRoy Rath, White Swan football coach

With Pat Harris and John Hawes combining to score 29 touchdowns and Larry Smithwick throwing for 21 scores, White Swan rolled through the Valley A League, blanking second-place Highland 39-0 while finishing 9-0 with only one challenge. The Cougars rolled up 62 touchdowns and 404 points, shattering area records, and posted six shutouts.

Of the 38 points WS allowed, nearly all were in a 34-26 non-league win over much bigger Prosser. Rath had 25 players on his roster and 17 received all-league honors.

White Swan, unfortunately, didn’t get much love in the state A poll and finished No. 5 while being just over the B enrollment line. Marquette, in fact, was also 9-0 that year and ranked second behind Raymond. The Squires, playing in the Little Seven League, had three common opponents with White Swan and the total margins were very similar — White Swan 148-26, Marquette 119-12.

Rath, younger brother of Dennis, moved on to Eastmont in 1967. In the 20 seasons between 1945 and 1964, White Swan had the highest winning percentage in the Valley (.693) with a 104-46-3 record.

10, Highland, 1970

The Scotties produced three unbeaten teams between 1965 and 1971 and this appears to be the best one, although ‘71 can make a strong case.

After edging Granger 7-6 in the first of four nonleague games, Highland proceeded to crush everyone else, starting with a 36-0 blanking of Kamiakin the next week. The Valley A League title came down to the season finale against Cle Elum and the Scotties made a loud statement — 32-0.

Ron Wyles threw a dozen touchdown passes, ran in six scores and booted 20 PATs, and Dale Story led the team in scoring. Coach Sam Moyle’s defense pitched four shutouts and held opponents to six points in three other games.

Highland’s 1971 team, with Wyles and Story both graduated, was similarly constructed with a defense that held eight foes to one score or less. The Scotties finished No. 3 in the state A poll in 1970 and ‘71 with very tight voting both years. The Cle Elum team that Highland humbled in ‘70 was 8-2.

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