Birth of a Rivalry

September 13, 1969

Lumberjack Stadium


LEADING IN:  Coconino and Flag High were at opposite ends of the football spectrum when 1969 rolled around. 


The tough times continued on the West Side, as the venerable Eagles fumbled through ’68 with a 0-10 record.  They did, however, have a few things going for them going into the new season.  They had a wealth of experience in their coaching staff, led by John Ply and his omnipresent assistant, Gilbert Corona.  They had eighteen letterman returning.  They had depth in several key positions, including quarterback, where senior Derald Cox and junior Carlos Diaz were competing for the starting job.  Still playing a AAA Skyline schedule against Phoenix powerhouses, the Flag High faithful’s optimism was high, but it was also realistic. 


The Panthers, on the other hand, were defending AA champions after just one season of varsity play.  Many of the heroes from last year’s string of miracle wins were back, including Tom Lantz, David McNabb, and Rick Brenfleck.  Head Coach Bill Epperson had proven himself quite capable in so short a time and was no longer merely Ply’s former assistant.  Dick Henderson was slated to start quarterback for the Cats.


Despite their finishes in ’68, the Eagles, being the older team playing AAA-level competition, were considered favorites in the inaugural rivalry game.  Ply knew the game was going to be closely contested; “It should be basically a close game and relatively even in errors.  A fumble or pass interception could make the difference in the outcome.”  Flagstaff was buzzing with excitement, having awaited this game since Coconino High opened two years prior; football fans would have to wait one more day, as heavy rains meant flooding across the city, leaving the field at Lumberjack Stadium unplayable and meaning the game would have to be played the following night.


THE GAME:  Because of the still-waterlogged field, the inaugural game of the rivalry series was a sloppy affair, marred with turnovers and penalties that slowed the offenses and made it a defensive struggle.  The elements impacted the game right from the start, as the Panthers got on the board first by way of miscue; Curtis Bryant recovered a botched handoff in the end zone on Flag High’s first offensive play for the rivalry’s first touchdown.  The Eagles got their first score in the second quarter on a Steve Neal 22-yard run around right end, and with Andy Magana’s PAT, they led at halftime, 7-6. 


It remained so until the fourth quarter, when another Flag High fumble cost them dearly; Panthers Lantz and McNabb jumped on the loose ball on the Flag High 2, and two plays later, Mike Gilliland punched it in.  The Eagles had their chances to take the lead back, but four fourth-quarter fumbles killed them.  All told, six Flag High fumbles did them in.  The Panthers were hardly perfect themselves, sabotaging several drives with a total of 105 yards in penalties.


Coconino 12, Flagstaff 7


AT THE END OF THE DAY:  The Panthers used this win to propel themselves to another solid season.  They lost the next week by a single point to Globe, 22-21, then tore through the rest of their schedule, winning seven of their last eight games.  Losing to Winslow in Week 5, 28-8, put the Cats in a hole they never quite dug out of, ending the season with a great 8-2 record, but second behind the Bulldogs in the AA North race.


Flag High didn’t get their first win until Game Four, as their 45-29 triumph over Sunnyslope ended a 14-game losing streak that started in the last week of ’67.  After conference wins over Washington and Brophy, the Eagles were in contention for the Skyline title.  Those hopes were dashed when they lost to Glendale, 26-12, and then Prescott to end the season.  They finished 3-5.






















CHS:    Bryant fumble recovery in end zone (conversion failed) 

FHS:    Neal 22 run (Magana PAT)

CHS:    Gilliland 2 run (conversion failed) 


Original story taken from the Arizona Republic; September 14, 1969

Text for Flagcoco written by Russell Woods, August 9, 2012

Last updated:  February 26, 2013