Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Cokeville, Wyoming

Blocking Sled
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Wyoming has five different classifications of high school football teams based on school enrollment sizes. 5A includes the largest schools whereas 1A consists of the state’s smallest schools. All five divisions are a reflection of the state’s sparse population as none of these classes have more than twelve representative teams.

In the autumn of 2001, I decided to stay closer to home and instead of wandering into Montana to seek out the six-man and eight-man games of Class “C” football, I went after the 3A, 2A and 1A games that took place in and around the Big Horn Basin.

I knew it would be a good year following the opening game between Greybull and Dubois when the Buffalos of Greybull ended their 39 game losing steak. Following that first game, I travelled to Basin, Lovell, Burlington, Meeteetse, and Byron to take in their versions of small town high school football. Throughout the year, I would visit the Wyoming High School Athletic Association web page to check out the results of a past weekend and to find out where the games would be played for the upcoming weekend. Each time I made note of the standings for each division as well. One team at the top of the 1A standings continued to catch my eye—Cokeville.

Although I’d never been to Cokeville and didn’t even know where it was until I looked it up on the map after hearing about this team, something told me I needed to go there or to a town where they would be playing. As the season progressed, I’d heard fans, coaches, and referees mention this team from time to time which fed my curiosity. What really struck me about Cokeville was that even though they were only a 1A team, they were beating up on 2A and 3A teams—often on the other teams’ home fields as well!

But getting to see Cokeville wouldn’t be easy. In geographical terms Cokeville is neatly tucked away on the other side of the Commissary Range in the southwestern part of the state and is the last town you go through before leaving the state to enter Idaho. Furthermore, they didn’t play any games this far north so, I knew if I wanted to see them, I’d be looking at a long drive and possibly a long weekend.

As the season approached its conclusion and the playoff match-ups started to form, I started thinking more and more about how I would see undefeated Cokeville. The second weekend in November turned out to be when all the title games would be played. With the exception of the 5A game being held on Friday night in Rock Springs, the other four games would be played at the same time— Saturday at one o’clock. It wasn’t difficult for me to decide which one I would attend, although I was a little miffed that all the games were scheduled at the same time preventing those like myself from seeing more than one title match on that day. So, I started making plans for the 1A championship game in Cokeville.

Early in the week before the game, I was concerned that my car wouldn’t make the trip because of noise coming from my front left wheel and there was only enough funds in my bank account for a visit to Jiffy Lube. However, I visited with my local auto mechanic and he assured me it would be reliable for such a road trip providing I didn’t do any off-road driving or tight parallel parking in some big city. I didn’t think that would be the case in Cokeville.

To shorten the drive, I left Powell friday night and stayed with a friend in Pinedale—a mere three hour drive from Cokeville. As I was driving through Thermopolis I noted that everyone looked like they were just going about their usual, ho-hum business. I wanted to stop, climb up on top of my car and shout, “What’s wrong with you people? Don’t you know tomorrow is the big game in Cokeville? Didn’t the folks of Thermop know of the impending “State Title Saturday?” And if they weren’t going to Cokeville surely they’d consider the other title games in Big Piney, Mountain View, Rock Springs or Yoder. It was like an epiphany. I envisioned every sports fan in Wyoming travelling over the scenic vistas of this high desert state to attend one of the high school title games offered up each year—what a great tradition! I looked again at the people in Thermopolis following my little fantasy—they looked as if they could give a toss; so, why was it that I cared?

The next morning in Pinedale, I jumped in my car and made my way for a town I’d never been to in order to watch a team I knew little about—I didn’t even know their school colours or mascot. And before the weekend was over, I had driven over 1,000 miles.

The weather was euphoric that November weekend—as if a couple of the warm September days that never materialized two months ago had finally arrived. The temperature climbed into the 60s with a few high clouds and plenty of sun. The coloured leaves of autumn had been carried off by the wind and were already scattered across the earth. Winter was waiting in the wings for its stage call.

Somewhere north of Kemmerer I thought to myself, “Well, here I am with eighty dollars in my pocket—half of it for petrol—and I’m finally on my way to Cokeville. This is living!” A song with a clunky melody came to me that included the refrain, “I’m going to Cokeville.” I was embarrassed for myself.

It’s always a funny thing to be driving miles and miles down the road to some football game in a town you’ve never even passed through. “What if there’s another Cokeville somewhere else in the state,” I pondered? “What if I can’t find the stadium because of some obscure rationale for playing in the next town down the road?” Yet, I considered that a town as small as Cokeville hosting something as big as a state title game surely must be bustling with excitement so, how could I miss it? I found myself wishing that I had arrived the night before just so I could take in some of that excitement in one of the watering holes the night before or the town cafĂ© for a pre-game breakfast. I considered the people that go to Times Square for the New Year’s celebration. Surely they know more of what to expect than me going to Cokeville for the state 1A title game. At least they’ve probably seen Times Square on TV in previous years.

The questionable condition of my car made the trip more of an adventure than usual. I thought, “I may get to Cokeville, I may not. This may end up being a story about car troubles instead of football. But, I didn’t spend an entire season following small town high school football just to miss the best team in the title game. I’ll get there if I have to hitchhike.”

I found myself wishing someone was along with me for this particular trip—someone who would never do this on their own initiative. Surely they would light up with excitement upon finding such an event in a place they’ve never given a thought. And what would the players of Cokeville think about me if they knew I had driven over 300 miles to see them play? What would they think of a 41-year-old guy driving all those miles—just for their game, nothing else; no relatives there, no girlfriend, just a football game involving a bunch of high school kids!

The day after the title games were played, I learned that Big Piney had beaten Mountain View in the 3A title game. On my way to Cokeville I had driven through Big Piney in the morning where that game was played. Then I remembered that Cokeville had beaten Big Piney earlier in the season—at Big Piney. Yes, I had chosen the best game to attend.