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All Points West: ’79, the year dreams came true
August 13, 2015 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
This time of year is special. In the mornings, there’s the smell of harvest in the air. The schools reawaken across town, and all of west Nebraska. Gering football players on Monday stepped onto the fresh-cut grass of the high school’s practice field. Under new Head Coach Todd Ekart, they started conditioning in earnest.

Once in a blue moon, it happens, when all the stars seem in alignment, and the football gods smile upon the underdog, making for drama which sports enthusiasts immediately classify as a legendary game, or instant classic. In it all, there are winners and losers. And, yes, I can say that happy endings do happen, if rarely. It was like that one year for the Gering Bulldog football teams as they triumphed over their arch rival Scottsbluff, not once, not twice, but three times.

From what friends and acquaintances have told me, the rivalry between Gering and Scottsbluff has never been more exciting – good for local sports. Therefore, it is my pleasure in re-reporting this. This prompted some harried research on my part in some ways to relive the victories that took place when I was a freshman. Back then, I played as an undersized tackle (5-foot-6 and about a buck fifty) going both ways, but hell on special teams, for coaches Junior Alvarez, now a math professor at Western Nebraska Community College, and Don Kugler, a science teacher at Gering H.S.

Football games are played on a stage, where the impossible can happen, and believe me, it does happen. The year was 1979, and the Gering Junior High football team was on a roll. With Alvarez as head coach, this would be the year the frosh team would end the season with a perfect 6-0 run. Despite being unbeaten, the only victory that mattered to me was the one against the Bearcats. Surprisingly, the Gering Junior High yearbook staff failed to report the final score. But, I had never been more pumped for a game – EVER. And, if there had been a playoffs system for the junior-high level in Nebraska, we young Bulldogs would surely have been a part of it.

Being a member of that glorious team, I noted the world took a pause in the Twin Cities that football season. Fans packed Memorial Stadium even for our freshman game to watch such players as Jason Margheim, Scott Popp, David Minch, John Mejia, and Greg McClane, to name a few. McLane and Minch both had older brothers who were stars on the high school team. Their names were Jeff and Mike, respectively. In our freshman game, I vividly recall being pancake-blocked by a Bearcat’s offensive tackle. That’s when I knew the contest was for keeps.

The rivalry was everything. It was what we talked about every season. Ever since there has been such a thing as the Twin Cities, Gering and Scottsbluff have continued a friendly rivalry, and at times, not so friendly. The line in the sand was the North Platte River. Dogs and cats fighting sounded natural. It all fit. We watched the others’ movements – the river crossings – like it was war.

In Gering, it was always our goal in football, or really in any sport, to beat the other guy. Of course, it meant bragging rights for an entire year.

“There was excitement that it was our rival, and that we had the opportunity to beat them that year,” said Mejia, who played running back, and now works as the city treasurer for the City of Gering. “Overall we had a great number of very good athletes. It being Scottsbluff versus Gering, it was little brother playing the big brother. To win was a big accomplishment, even for the school, and brings back great memories.”

In 1979, in the days leading up to the varsity high school game, Tim Meisner, a Gering alum from 1979, said that in the fall of 1978, the previous season, Gering was so sure they would knock off Scottsbluff, but ended up losing, 27-14. “We left a lot of blood on that field,” he said. This added fuel to the fire. Meisner, now the director of business services at Gering Public Schools, said, what’s little known about the series was Gering had been playing its home games against Scottsbluff in Scottsbluff, due to a capacity issue, and the ticket draw. In fact, Gering had set up bleachers on the opposite side of the Memorial Stadium’s grandstand to accommodate the expected high turnout.

Add to it, tensions had grown even more because Gering’s new Athletic Director Terry Miller insisted the game be played in Gering as a “true home game.” In the weeks prior, the Gering Courier had been previewing the clash with promotions, then making it nearly a half-page story after the Bulldogs triumphed 9-6 over the Bearcats. It might as well have been a blowout, the way we ran onto the field and jumped around after the game.

Head Coach Dan Ernst and Gering had done it, pulling off the trifecta. Even the JV had pulled out a narrow 14-12 victory over our nemesis. Gering’s final victory over Scottsbluff did not sit well with diehard fans, and it was even rumored that Miller received death threats after the game.

Rumors being rumors, Miller said that it merely amounted to “phone calls asking us not to move the game. The main reason we wanted to move the game was because Superintendent Harold Koch and I both had sons who were seniors that year, and we wanted it to be something they would remember, something special.”

Miller added: “The rivalry was always there. The talent on both teams was about equal. That was a good opportunity for us.”
Gering’s high school yearbook staff played it up big, giving it four pages. The headline read: “We Did It! We Beat Scottsbluff!” The first line continued with a combination of gloating and thankfulness: “River Rats! They didn’t do it this time! The dream of beating archrival Scottsbluff finally came true after 14 long years of waiting.” In a reference to the change in venue, the brief yearbook write-up reported, “Athletic Director Terry Miller gambled on small profits, in the small stadium, but the home field advantage and the victory were worth any small monetary loss.”

The Courier suggested this game would be one that players would tell their grandchildren, calling it something “never-to-be-forgotten.”
Lest I give short shrift to the play-by-play, Gering shot out to a 9-point lead in the first half, all the offense they would get. Mark Winchell scored a 22-yard field goal on the ’Dog’s first possession, and Ty Miller scored a touchdown in the second quarter. Winchell’s PAT was wide right. After half time, the ’Cats scored with 3:25 left in the game when fullback Doug Lee capped off a 73-yard drive on a 1-yard run. The PAT was smothered by Gering’s Jeff McLane and Kirk Walleson. With Gering in possession on the next series, Bulldog fans joyously counted down as the last seconds ticked off the clock.
After so many years, I found the excitement was still there, as my mind could barely keep up with the words coming out of my mouth in retelling the story to anyone who would listen.

Yes, for anyone untouched by this rivalry that has survived decades, it is ‘for real.’ And, dreams do come true.

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