Opinion: A tribute to our State champions

By Cody Wagner

Editor’s note: Cody Wagner has been a resident of Fernley for most of his life and is the Chair of the Fernley Community Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fernley Reporter, the Fernley Community Foundation, or the City of Fernley.

When I volunteered to write these articles a few months ago, I pictured it going differently. There were important topics that needed to be communicated to the residents of Fernley and beyond, ranging from local politics to state economics to changing our community’s mindset. None of these have gone away (and I fully intend to circle back to those issues sometime next calendar year), but sometimes life takes you in different directions.

In this case, a group of young men from Fernley High School were able to put together a series of wins on the football field, and in the process unite our community behind an underdog story that is enough to provide a lifetime of memories for those involved. I figure it is a story that deserves a diversion of my writing focus, so the following is my own take on Fernley High School’s first football state championship in over 50 years.

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Many close football games come down to one moment, one play, one break that goes one way or the other. In my opinion, that moment came in the first quarter of the state championship game against a Churchill County High School team that hadn’t lost a league game in two seasons. Sure, there were lots of pivotal plays in crunch time in the third and fourth quarters where the Fernley team showed its resolve, but I thought this particular moment was more important. And it actually didn’t even start with a play from the Fernley side.

It was Fallon’s Elijah Jackson, a split second from being sacked, throwing a 30-yard dart on the move to receiver Brock Richardson, who was closely covered by a Fernley defender, but managed to haul in the pass, shake off a tackle, and go the rest of the 75 yards for the first score of the game. It showed how talented the team from Fallon was, a play where Fernley was so close to making a huge stop but just barely outplayed by an athletically superior team with several college-level players.

Most opponents would have wilted mentally in that moment, and maybe subtlety thought to themselves, “Good season, but these guys are just too talented.” It could have started a snowball effect for Fernley, where one bad thing leads to another and another, and by the time halftime hits, Fallon is up by four scores like they had done to opponents all season.

Cody Wagner

As I stood on the sideline and watched the celebration of their touchdown, I honestly was not thinking about that, and I know none of the players were losing hope either. My mind was going back to the past few years for the group of seniors on the Fernley side. My thoughts wandered in a similar direction the previous week toward the end of the third quarter at Cheyenne High School in Las Vegas, when our kids had played nearly a perfect first 20 minutes and taken a 35-8 lead, only to see Cheyenne come storming back to make the game 35-30 with a full quarter to go.

I thought back to coaching these seniors when they were freshmen, and we were in the middle of a 2-5 season. One particular day at practice, the head coach of that team was so frustrated with the group that he kicked them off the field and told them to go home halfway through our schedule for the day to re-evaluate if they really even wanted to play football. I still vividly remember some of the looks of dejection those kids gave us as they shuffled off the field that day.  But they still showed up the next day for practice and ended up finishing that freshman season with one of our two wins of the year.

When the same guys were sophomores on the JV team, we had to go play a really talented Manogue JV team who not only killed us on the scoreboard, but also in the injury category. I remember some of those players having to be carried off the field after that game, but again, they kept showing up the following week and eventually beat Lowry 26-0 in our last game of the year after getting beat by them earlier that season.

Then, I remember their junior year, when many of the same kids had a rude introduction to the varsity football level. We were in Elko, couldn’t handle a snap (much less a blitz), and turned the ball over five times in the first half as I remember. Again, the same group could have quit or checked out on the season and themselves. Again, they just kept working and ended up winning a playoff game before giving Fallon one of their toughest games of the season before they went on to win the state championship.

As it turned out, adversity was nothing new for the senior group in this state championship game. Back in my football days, our freshman and JV coaches had us recite this series of motivational lines before every game. I don’t remember most of them, but the one I do read, “Adversity is borne in the storm. Your character is decided in the most difficult situations, not the best.” It had been storming on this particular group for their whole high school career with lots of adversity and mostly low expectations from the outside.

In Vegas, a couple tough defensive stands, an interception from Lonnie Halterman, and the offense finally breaking through on the last drive of the game helped clinch the birth to the state championship game.

Against Fallon, it was a simple figurative counterpunch right to the gut of the Greenwave goliath that showed them that the Fernley team was there to fight. On a third-and-12 play, Miles Steele threw a perfect ball to Halterman (one of only two passes during the entire game for Fernley) after a fantastically executed play-action fake for a 65-yard touchdown, and the rest of the game will go down in history.

The defense held Elijah Jackson in check the entire game, made critical goal line stops, and intercepted Jackson for the first time in the entire year for any opponent. The offense went on a 13-play, 8-minute drive for a touchdown with nothing but run plays the next drive to give the Vaqueros a lead they would never relinquish. And the kicking game, led by Jack Knodell’s onside kick recovery out of halftime and 37-yard field goal for likely the biggest kick in Fernley’s history, helped seal the first state championship for Fernley in more than 50 years.

Before recognizing the outgoing senior football players individually, there is another point extremely important to mention about the game. I had the pleasure of watching two live football games in back-to-back weeks in November: this state championship game and the Nevada-UNLV rivalry game the following week. The latter ended in an all-out melee in the end zone with punches being thrown and players swinging helmets at fans in the stands, possibly the worst example I’ve ever personally witnessed of representing one’s team and school in an athletic competition on both sides.

The high school state championship game was the exact opposite of that. For a contest that exciting and emotional (and likely incomparably disappointing for many of the Fallon players), the Greenwave football program showed an unprecedented amount of class and respect during postgame festivities, especially for high school kids. Their control of their emotions was something that community should be very proud of, the type of display from which the college players for Nevada and UNLV could have learned, and another aspect that made this game so special.

Back to our Vaqueros, one of the remarkable aspects of the state champions was how much of a team effort the whole season was. There were no individual talents or stat lines that stuck out far above the rest. It took every single player on the team to contribute in all aspects – offense, defense, special teams, and practice – and a commitment to continuing to improve all season.

Before I recognize the outgoing seniors individually, the coaching staff also deserves a ton of credit. Coach Chris Ward has been at this for more than 25 years at several different high schools and finally got the championship he worked so hard for, and make no mistake – he is absolutely one of the hardest working coaching in the Nevada, if not the country.

He assembled a great team of coaches to help in this effort too, a combination of guys with college playing experience (Coaches Tony Wilson, Tom Eck, and Shaun McMackin), guys who had played at Fernley High (Coaches Jake McCullar, Scott Gillespie, Brian Reyes, Kevin Montgomery, and Wilson), and a few others who brought an outside playing perspective from other regions (Coaches CJ Toulouse, Lyle Kibbe, and Stan Pryor).

As a group, I would bet that there is no other combined staff in our state who puts in as much time and work as these guys, both during the season and in the offseason. The season should always be about the kids and their accomplishments as it was in this case, but this coaching staff was absolutely deserving as well.

As for the players, I believe the same word I used to describe the coaching staff also is most fitting for them: deserving. I am positive that anyone who watched the full summers of conditioning, double-day practices, and weight room work ethic would say the same. There is a certain amount of luck that always goes into any sports competition that takes place, but I will always remember this particular team by how much they earned the banner that will forever be hanging in the school’s gymnasium.

There were plenty of sophomores and juniors who contributed tremendously on the field and took huge steps with the development of their personal character as well. Those guys will absolutely get their recognition going forward as they hopefully compete for another championship next year, and I personally think the world of many of those kids as well. But I wanted to save my final words of this column to recognize the seniors and their leadership that made this season possible.

First, to a group who might have not been on the field as much as some of the other seniors, but who were just as important as anyone else on the team for their contributions on special teams and at practices: Josh Rose, Ryan Edwards, Jacob Dwyer, Khyrii Prevost, Dominic Gianotti, Roman Porterfield, and Ryan Busch. Above any other sport or game, football is a game of numbers, meaning you have to have depth and skill at every position in order to even be able to have decent practices, much less survive through some injuries. Every single one of these guys made tremendous strides both athletically and personally.

As coaches, we talk quite a bit about what your life is going to be like years down the road and how sports will help shape that. For these guys, the bottom line is that you guys made it. Years from now, if you guys have families or kids, you are going to be able to take them in the gym and show them the state championship banner to tell them the story about being a part of something truly special this year. It will be part of a memory that you will never forget, and I couldn’t be prouder of this group for continuing to grind every single day and not giving up.

Secondly, a tribute to the graduating players at our “skill” position is deserving. Bailey Torres represented the epitome of this team, an undersized linebacker who squeezed every bit of athletic ability out of his body to make huge contributions on defense all season. Kicker Jack Knodell made possibly the biggest leap in skill level of this group from his sophomore year, when he started barely able to get the ball in the air on kicks, to his senior year when he will go down as one of the best kickers in school history. Lonnie Halterman was the all-around athlete who was as valuable as anyone on the whole team as a running back/receiver, cornerback, and punter. I am most proud of the growth as a person I witnessed in his past three years turning him into a true leader, and he showed that with two of the biggest plays of the season (interception in Las Vegas and touchdown catch I detailed above). Finally, Miles Steele was the leader of the offense at quarterback, a guy who constantly proved all doubters wrong and turned himself into an all-league quarterback and leader with tremendous decision-making and improvement all season long.

Finally, the last group of seniors who was the heart and soul of the team and as important as any positional group I have seen on any team I’ve been around: the linemen. Trust me that this season would have been much different without the excellence of this crew. It’s a group that I will admit having a bias towards since I worked with them directly during their freshmen and sophomore seasons. The team rushed for 329 yards per game, totaling more than 4,000 yards for the season. Every team all year knew the Vaqueros were going to run the ball, and they were still able to successfully do it. It is the true mark of an exceptional offensive line.

On defense, the seniors who played on that side were dominant as well.  Ethan Bacock was an undersized offensive tackle, but used technique and intelligence to play great. Alec Carr was fantastic all year at defensive tackle and filled in admirably when needed on offense. Logan Kibbe exemplified the selfless spirit of the team more than anyone, sacrificing whatever carries he might have gotten as a running back to become an excellent offensive tackle and exceeded expectations all year as a linebacker, becoming one of the biggest individual reasons for the team’s success.  Guard Jordan Franklin grew into one of the best offensive linemen in the conference and possibly this class’s best college prospect due to his tremendous size and work ethic in the weight room. Frank Morser was consistent and fantastic all season, playing what is probably the most difficult position on the offensive line at center. And finally, Setriano “Wee Man” Piroddi was not only one of the most unique individuals I have ever had the honor to coach but was also absolutely the best two-way lineman in our conference and probably the whole state at the 3A level, regardless of what the end-of-the-year honors might indicate (I make this conclusion based on watching the weekly game films all season – there were no better linemen that I saw all year). Linemen are ALWAYS overlooked on the football field, but I want to make sure that these guys get the credit they deserve as the most dominant unit in the conference.

I failed to find a chance to address all these seniors as a group at the end of the year, so I’ve done lots of thinking about what message I would leave them with after this memorable season. Every team I have ever coached has left some sort of legacy with me and with others who have watched them progress through high school, some better than others. The legacy this group leaves was actually written well before the state championship.

When I envision myself hopefully coaching 10-20 years down the road if I’m so lucky, there will be times of adversity and hardship as there are with any challenge you take on in life. When I start talking about overcoming adversity and persevering with determination and hard work for any team I coach, this will always be the group to whom I will refer. The story is a fairly immature freshman team with a 2-5 record that grew into young men during their high school careers who represented their school in a tremendously positive way, rallying the Fernley community in a way I had never seen before.

To add to this legacy, all-conference and all-state selections were announced recently. The top five awards (MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Lineman of the Year, and Coach of the Year) all went to Churchill County. Fernley placed a couple guys on the all-conference teams, but not a single player on the all-state team. To have the state championship team not represented at all on the all-state team is somewhat unbelievable, but also just speaks to the parity that this team played with.

Some of the players (probably rightfully) felt a little bit disrespected, but my final piece of advice for those players is that this just adds to your legacy. Everything you did the whole season was as a team, where no individual stood out above the group as a whole. You proved every single doubter wrong by winning the ultimate prize. From someone who received a few of those all-conference and all-state honors in high school, they are practically useless. I would trade any of you every personal accomplishments or awards I’ve ever received for just one chance to play in an atmosphere like you guys created for the state championship game.

In life, the lessons you learned through your progression as a team throughout your high school careers will have significantly more benefits than any individual awards ever could. I have no doubt that you will use all the attributes you demonstrated this year to go on to successful lives after high school. Thank you for making me just a tiny part of an unbelievable four year run, and congratulations for writing a little piece of Fernley history that many of us will never forget.

Happy Holidays! “Fernley Things To Do” and “Fernley Proud” sections will be continued next month.

If you have events that you would like to be highlighted or issues you would like to see me discuss, please email me at fernleycommunityfoundation@gmail.com. I will never guarantee content, but I will try to cover things that I feel are important for Fernley.

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