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Friday, February 23, 2024
Feb. 23, 2024

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Friday Night Flashback: Ridgefield-La Center rivalry had much on the line in 2003

Spudders won league title, but it was La Center with bigger playoff run

By , Columbian Assistant Sports Editor
2 Photos
Ridgefield High School football coach George Black in 2002.
Ridgefield High School football coach George Black in 2002. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

It’s hard to imagine a rivalry game having two winners. But in some ways, that’s what happened when Ridgefield and La Center renewed their football rivalry for the Trico League title on Oct. 31, 2003.

For George Black, it was the signature win in his seven seasons as Ridgefield’s head coach. The 14-0 victory capped a 9-0 regular season and the first outright league title for the Spudders since they won the state title in 1995.

“When the horn sounded, I remember guys congratulating each other, jumping, hugging,” Black said. “There were even tears shed. This was something they had worked for all season. It was just a great rewarding feeling for them to accomplish something they had set out to do the year before.”

La Center coach John Lambert remembers Ridgefield coaches, players and parents taking photos on the Wildcats’ former home field at La Center Middle School.

“It was big deal,” Lambert said. “We had won the league the prior two years. And so I wanted the kids to remember that celebration on our field. ‘You want to see that again?’ ”

Before the game, many La Center players thought they would be doing the post-game celebration, especially after Ridgefield’s star running back Johnny Peru suffered a broken collarbone the week before.

“Johnny Peru was so good, so elusive, so fast that when he got hurt, our kids were ‘OK, let’s go. Game on. This is going to be easy,’ ” Lambert said. “And as coaches, we were like ‘No. Please do not do that.’ But when you’re talking about high school kids, that’s where their brains go.”

The Spudders also heard the talk, and they were not listening.

“That whole week at practice, when you looked at the guys in the huddle and you looked into their eyes, you could tell that they didn’t have a doubt that they were going to be successful on Friday night,” Black said. “Even with all the doubters out there saying we didn’t stand a chance against La Center at their place, they didn’t worry about all the outside stuff that was going on.”

Once the game started, the Spudders made their own noise.

Ridgefield jumped out to 14-0 lead by halftime, then turned things over to its defense and strong kicking game that often pinned the Wildcats deep in their own territory.

“We had a tremendous defense that year,” Black said. “So even not having Peru, it wasn’t like that was the only thing we had going for us. In the game against La Center, the defense really showed up well.”

The Spudders were unable to keep things going in the postseason. They lost to Elma 27-8 in a Week 10 district seeding game. At state, Ridgefield fell to Eatonville 20-13 when the Spudders were stopped late from inside the Cruisers’ 2-yard line.

The Wildcats’ fortune went the other direction. La Center beat Rochester 39-6 in the district playoff before wins over Mount Baker (19-13) and Steilacoom (42-21) at state. The Wildcats’ run ended in the 2A state semifinals with 28-26 loss to Meridian.

“My memory of the kids was how they were saying ‘This is not going to define our season,’ ” Lambert said. “It was kind of neat way for them to realize ‘We need to practice harder. We have to be more efficient. We have to take it more seriously.’ So if we had won that game, I don’t know how the season would have ended up.”

For Black, he remembers a cap to a special season with a classic matchup for the league title in the Ridgefield-La Center rivalry.

“Everybody from La Center and Ridgefield was there that night,” said Black, who still teaches and serves as an assistant football coach at Ridgefield. “The La Center stands were packed and people lined the field in every direction.

“There was always that great rivalry between Ridgefield and La Center. We don’t get the opportunity to play them as often as we used to. But there are still a lot of families and history in the area. So if we get the chance to beat them, that’s a good thing. And I think they feel the same way.”