Chasing the improbable win and the Idaho high school football playoffs
|It a was crisp, fall morning in 1987, and I was packed into a car with other students en route to morning classes at Jerome High School. Someone turned up the dial. Our hometown Tigers were hosting conference rivals from Buhl that night in a first-ever battle of unbeatens, the squads being ranked #1 and #2 in the state, respectively. It was the final game of the season with a trip to the state playoffs on the line. The color commentator from our team’s live radio broadcasts was about to offer his weekly prediction, something which he’d done with uncanny accuracy over the years. After discussing each team for a few moments, he called his shot: “Jerome 30, Buhl—a whipped—0.” Late that evening, when the final whistle had blown, Jerome tallied 37 points on the scoreboard. Buhl had none.
Two years later, I approached this same commentator after a weeknight game of pickup basketball with the old guys from Jerome’s city league. I was now a junior on the football team, and we had earned another spot in the state playoffs. With a slight grin, I confronted the pundit about the rumor that he’d be picking our opponent; he replied matter-of-factly, informing me how the visiting Snake River Panthers were about to end our season.
What’s the formula for delivering an upset? The thought might have crossed my mind in that moment. Doubts about us winning weren’t new or surprising. This season had been widely anticipated as Jerome’s big drop off after years of football dominance. With many of our star players having moved away in recent years, we fielded a squad that was undersized with relatively-low turnout. The Panthers were the stark opposite—they were physically huge. When our projected defensive tackle had transferred to Snake River during the preceding summer, he found a role on their squad…as the quarterback. Complicating things further, one of our team captains—an irreplaceable two-way starter whose physical play was badly needed—would be out as he served a one-game suspension.
Rumors of our team’s complete demise turned out to have been a bit exaggerated that year. Although our conference foes brought winning records and sizable crowds to our stadium, anticipating a changing of the guard, we’d swept through them, earning our spot in the playoffs. But we’d also suffered lopsided losses, the worst being at Shelley, as their team put up 55 points and won going away. While we had retooled our lineup following that debacle to win 3 of our last 4, an ominous fact stared us in the face: Snake River—with only 1 loss on the season—had taken on Shelley and beaten them.
As the radio color guy described our impending doom, I don’t recall having a snappy comeback or attempting to get in the last word. I remember feeling a quiet confidence. I knew some things that pundits and predictors did not.
The cornerstone of our team that year was Jeff Pedrow. He would finish the season as a 1st team all-state selection at both middle linebacker and offensive tackle. A multi-sport star—wrestler, boxer, power-hitting catcher--Jeff was the toughest guy and absolute hardest hitter I’d faced. Trying to knock Jeff off his line of attack was like trying to disrupt a boulder as it bounded down a mountain. I’d never won a one-on-one battle of any kind against him that involved hitting. However, a lesson from absorbing Jeff’s beat downs became a competitive advantage—one that outsiders would be hard-pressed to grasp: If you could bring your best effort against Jeff during practice, absorb the pain, stand your ground, and come back again, you could hang with anyone. Playing in actual games after facing Pedrow all week was liberating. We could throw caution to the wind, play fast and hit with all we had, knowing the hardest knocks of the week were behind us. Our squad always knew who the toughest guy on the field was—we’d played with him all year. Such a team wasn’t likely to be intimidated by a bigger opponent. We knew something else—to fully execute its scheme, Snake River would have to run their power game directly through Jeff Pedrow.
That wasn’t the only thing we knew about our opponent. Our coaches meticulously prepared for Snake River’s option attack, which was conspicuously diagrammed in detail outside our locker room for all to see. This not-so-subtle tactic caught the attention of the visiting Panthers as they arrived at our school and filtered past our very-public scouting report. How well we’d stack up against their squad remained to be seen, but we had our assignments—and those of our opponent--down cold.
There was another subtle factor at play. Our team had reshuffled its lineup repeatedly, sometimes in ways that required star players to assume less-glamorous positions. Where many high school squads could have disintegrated, pulled apart by injured egos and individual agendas, our team had evolved into an almost oddly-cohesive unit. Pedrow had given up his place at running back to shore up our O line, which had returned no starters from the prior season. With Jeff on board—that unheralded and undersized group developed into an assignment-sound unit that brought the fight to opponents. Would-be-tacklers had to first meet our guys in the gap and beat them to make a play. Going into the playoffs, a collective confidence had grown. Our team had taken its lumps but developed a battle-hardened belief that we could convert game prep into on-field results.
Having a dominant player to lead us, faith in a detailed game plan, and confidence in our collective team had spawned a locker room belief that we’d beat the odds that week. But would we? No one could know our actual chances or what precise actions might put us over the top. Would the outcome hinge on a late-night review of game footage, as a coach rewound the tape one more time and diagrammed a winning concept? Would a young player raise his hand that week and ask for an explanation on a crucial assignment that he hadn’t quite grasped—or fail to inquire at all? Perhaps there were circumstances at play of which we knew nothing. A key opponent could’ve been battling the flu or injuries, stayed up late studying, or been dumped by his girlfriend. Or would an oblong ball simply hit the hardened, southern Idaho turf on a cold November night and bounce our way? Trying to diagram the factors within upset victories could drive the research purist crazy—there are too many moving parts, variables, and unknowable aspects. A common catalyst may be easier to identify—at some point, the successful underdog believes in its chances. We can do this. Our best effort, put into action on the field of play, will be enough. We will get this done.
Such an attitude was almost tangible on the Tiger sideline when the game finally arrived, and the opening whistle blew. In front of packed stands, the Tigers took the ball and began moving downfield, an audible buzz and intermittent roars from the hometown crowd growing with each gain. Our suspended team captain, clad in his letter-man's jacket, moved energetically up and down the sidelines, pumping his fist and urging on his team. Jerome’s opening drive kept rolling until the ball crossed the goal line for a touchdown. The preceding week of drills and scrimmages, clashing shoulder pads and impassioned speeches had collectively morphed into the game’s first points, now illuminated on the end zone scoreboard. What followed was a game noted for its big plays and pivotal moments, momentum shifts and dramatic twists which kept the final verdict in doubt until the waning minutes.
Was one team more prepared or motivated that night? Were there match up advantages that hadn’t become apparent until kickoff? Did someone, or many someones, play their best game, or their worst? The reasons behind the game’s outcome would be debated. One thing that remains clear is that a highly-ranked, odds-on favorite came to Tiger Stadium to face an undersized, home-town underdog that night. In that game, Jerome seized the lead and never trailed, securing a spot in the state semi-finals as its fans stormed the field.
As this year’s state tournament kicks off across all classifications, we’ll likely see this scenario play out again. Some team, somewhere—less heralded and perhaps undermanned—will defy expectations. The experts and the masses will get it wrong, as some unseen or unknowable factors align and propel the underdog to an improbable victory. Who will it be? Let the games begin.
Behind all upsets—a great desire to win