You know, there's been some pretty big games played at Panther Stadium over the years, but this one coming up on Friday has the potential to be one of the biggest of all time. I've said several times that this game has lost a bit of its luster because of the Panthers 0-2 start on the season. Unfortunately, people just don't look at a team that's sporting a 9-3 record in the same light as one that's 12-0, or 11-1.
The fact that the Panthers stand at 9-3 make them no less of an elite team than if they had suffered just the single loss to the Wildcats three weeks ago and stood at a lofty 11-1 when meeting the still unbeaten Wildcats at 12-0.
But still, there's something about a battle of "unbeaten" teams. There's something about two teams playing, late in the season, for all the marbles, with a perfect record on the line. That doesn't happen very often, and it would have been fun three weeks ago to have the opportunity to hype up that game between the Panthers and Wildcats with the same enthusiasm as a game the I had the opportunity to play in many years ago against the Osawatomie Trojans.
That was a game of epic proportions, at least to the guys that strapped it up that Halloween Night in Paola back in 1973. That was a battle of unbeaten teams, the second and fourth ranked teams in Kansas Class 3A at the time, and bitter, bitter rivals in a day when both teams were good, and when there was really something on the line. At that time there were no district playoffs, and the Paola vs Osawatomie contest that year was a "win and you're in" game. No district runner-up status to bail you out, that night, we had to win to play on. Lose and it was get ready for basketball season.
If you will indulge me a bit, I'd like to take you all on a trip down "memory lane" so to speak and re-live that magical 1973 season as we prepare to watch the Panthers and their new rival Louisburg meet in another do or die game on Friday night.
In 1973, we here in Paola High, knew were were good. Unfortunately, the guys that went to Osawatomie High were good too, it was much the same as Paola and Louisburg this year, there were no secrets, we were well aware of their talents, and they of ours, and it was almost like a weekly contest to see who could beat up on their opponent more, to send a message the eight or so miles between the two towns, that "we see what you're doing, now here, top this!" We did a pretty good job of putting some numbers on the board that were difficult to top.
The season opened at home against Garnett (not Anderson County, they were still Garnett High School). They had a pretty good rushing attack, and we were a bit concerned that they might be able to get outside on us. We had a pretty strong up the gut running attack, and a nice late summer rain storm turned the Panther Stadium turf into a slippery track, much like last Friday and the vaunted outside speed running of Garnett was negated. We pitched a shut-out that night, and brought home a 22-0 victory, we stood at 1-0, and down the road the Trojans also won to make them 1-0 too.
Week two brought our first road trip to play at St. Joseph of Shawnee. (If you're wondering who is St. Joseph of Shawnee, well that little Catholic school moved south a few years later and became Aquinas High School!) St. Joe jumped to a 10-0 lead on us in the first half, we knew they were going to be tough to beat, but we came back and held them scoreless in the second half (that fact will be important a bit down the line) and scored two touchdowns of our own to squeak by for a 12-10 win, we were at 2-0, and Oz destroyed somebody that night too, they were 2-0.
It was back to Panther Stadium in week three against another team no one probably remembers, Immaculata. I don't remember much about this game, other than we pitched another shut-out. That was two shut-outs in three games, and gave us an streak of six straight quarters without allowing a point. Immaculata fell by a 16-0 score, were were 3-0 and Osawatomie rolled on with a victory to keep pace at 3-0.
Week four produced a more familiar foe, the Lansing Lions. Not the 5A Lansing Lions of today, it was the same town, but a much smaller school, 3A Lansing, we always found it interesting going up to Lansing to play an looking at the Kansas State Prison on the hill overlooking the football field. This cat fight went to the Panthers that night, as we won that game 30-0. This was another game that I don't recall a lot of details from, but I do remember that I kicked off. Now most teams use their kicker as a safety on coverage, but when you're 6'6" and weight 235 pounds and aren't the fastest boat in the water, that's not a good idea. So I went downfield on coverage, and one of my more fleet footed team mates play the safety valve role. The Lions assigned some little guy the role of cutting me off at the knees about ten yards downfield. Now I'm not the quickest learner sometimes, and it took about three times for this runt to cut me off for me to figure out what to do. So the next time I kicked off, I decided that if he was going to go low, so was I, which was no small feat, but I did, and I hit him HARD. Needless to say, he didn't cut me at the knees again! Anyway, week four came and went, we remained unbeaten, ran our shut out streak to 10 quarters, and kept pace with the Trojans at 4-0.
The next week saw us return to Panther Stadium to host the DeSoto Wildcats. I don't have any great memories of this game, but it was another victory and another shut out. Our defense had allowed just 10 points in five games, and had not been scored on for 14 consecutive quarters, as the Wildcats fell 44-0.
Tonganoxie was our next opponent and our next destination to play. I remember, they had a pretty good team that year, and going on the road was a concern to the coaches and players alike. Tongie had this field (maybe it's the same, I don't know) that sat down in a hallow and you could see it as you drove on the street around the school. I always remember that traveling to Tongie, DeSoto and Lansing for games those years seemed to take forever! I hated those trips, but it wasn't bad when we came home winners. My best memory of this game was that I absolutely killed two kick offs, sending one to the goal line and another sailing completely out of the end zone. The other highlight -- another shut-out victory. The defense was really playing well, we had not allowed a point in 18 quarters, and our offense was rolling. This night the score was 26-0, and for those of you keeping score at home, that moved our record to 6-0, and we had outscored our opponents by an impressive 150-10. Oh yea, that other team to the south won too, they were 6-0 also.
Week seven brought Gardner to town. Again, this was not the big, bad, Bubba Starling led Trailblazers of the current day. No, they were a little more friendly, although no less competitive bunch, without the gleaming new mega school on the west side of town. Gardner as a sleepy little bedroom community at the time out on the edge of the Olathe Naval Air Station. They had some good athletes, but by this time, there was no one in the Pioneer (yes the Pioneer) League that could compete with either Paola or Osawatomie. It was homecoming, and the only outcome that was even in doubt that night was who would be crowned homecoming queen (no kings at that time, just queens). We rolled to a 43-0 lead by the middle of the second quarter, and the starters had long since turned the game over to the JV. Halftime came, junior Patty Conrow (see I told you we did things differently) was crowned queen, and our defense had run its shut out streak to 20 quarters with no end in sight. But then, late in the third quarter, Gardner did the unthinkable, they broke a run which was stopped at our 10 yard line. The first team defense was called on to come off the bench, after quite a bit of inactivity and try and preserve the shut out streak. Three straight draw plays had netted a couple of yards for the Blazers, but on fourth down, we allowed them to score, and lost our shut-out streak at four games, but preserved the victory by a 43-8 score. And yes, Osawatomie won too we both stood at 7-0.
Week eight was another long trip, at least in those days, up to Piper, which, like all those other schools north and west of Overland Park were just little rural high schools at the 3A level. Piper was relatively new to the league, and the Pirates were no match for us, as we jumped out to a substantial half time lead. Much like the Gardner game, we were way ahead and shutting out the Pirates in the third quarter, when another miscue by the JV gave them a first and goal around our 10 yard line. Again the first team defense went into the game, and again they scored on us on fourth down. Other than allowing another seven points, the thing I remember most is the fog. There was a big communication tower outside the field at one end, I can remember that you could see it well at the beginning of the game, but it had all but disappeared by the conclusion. The good news in this game was we were not challenged, putting up 64 points, but the bad news was we gave up seven. That moved our season record to 8-0, we had outscored our opponents 257-25, put up five shut-outs. We had allowed three touchdowns and a field goal all season long, in 32 quarters, we had held our opponents scoreless in 28 of them. Oh yes, Osawatomie had put up as good, or better numbers, we were both undefeated and on a collision course for a Halloween night street fight at Panther Stadium.
Needless to say, week nine did not go well for us as Panthers. The Trojans were everything they were billed as and a bit more. But, even though we lost by a 36-8 score, and then watched as the Trojans went on to win the Kansas Class 3A State Championship a couple of weeks later, I know we put up one heck of a fight. The game atmosphere was electric. I know I've told the story a thousand times about coming to the stadium two hours early to dress and seeing the stands on both sides of the field filled to capacity. The field was lined with fans five, six, seven deep all the way around, there had to be 5,000 to 6,000 people there. It was great. We were in the game at the half, trailing just 14-8, but an early Trojan score made the situation more difficult and two late turnovers by our offense gave Osawatomie two short field scores to make the final margin greater than it probably should have been. Don't get me wrong, the best team won that night, but I truly believe that if we would have won, we would have hoisted the state championship trophy later that November.
Well, there you have it, that was my moment in the sun, at least on the football field. I was named an all league second team player in football, went on to a unanimous choice all league basketball season, including all-state honorable mention. We missed going to state in football, and fell three points short in basketball as we tied to play in our second straight state tournament. I finally got a taste of state competition in the spring as Paul Watson and I qualified for the state golf tournament in Wellington in the spring of 1974.
It was a fun year, I would have liked to of won one more football game and one more basketball game and then seen how the rest of the games would have played out, but that was not in the cards, but it was a season that gave me memories to last a lifetime. Let's hope that the Paola and Louisburg players who will meet on the Panther Stadium field will have as many memories nearly 40 years from now as I do of that season.