HEBER CITY – Hanging together like brothers along the back of the home bleachers, the colorful life-size posters of all 26 smiling seniors on the Wasatch High football team were hard to miss when entering Wright-Tree Stadium on Friday, Oct. 29.
It was finally Friday, and kickoff in the Wasatch-Richfield 3A state playoff first-round match-up was fast approaching.
Inside the stadium, blankets lined the bleachers marking reserved seating for families. There were signs, banners, block "W" flags and other decorations that reflected hours of work by cheerleaders, mothers and boosters.
As the cozy home bleachers filled with fans, parents greeted one another (because everyone knows each other) and pulled out their gold towels while young children tossed the pigskin back and forth. Any teenagers not in uniform, holding a musical instrument or pom-poms escaped to congregate and socialize near the cook shack.
Across on the visitor sideline, Richfield fans packed together on the kiddie soccer field benches. Others huddled in blankets on a hill overlooking the south end zone.
Aside from the movie theater, the big game was the only event in town and thus the hottest ticket. When the Wasps swarmed onto the sacred green turf, more than 1,000 fans in Heber City buzzed to life.
"We're still a one-high school community. We still have that feel, even though we are growing, that Wasatch High School is the biggest thing here and people come out," said Jason Watt, WHS athletic director. "We try hard to remember our heritage and maintain a sense of family because we really feel that way."
With 40 seconds remaining in the first quarter, Wasatch running back Cody Parker plowed into the end zone from three yards out to give the Wasps a 6-0 lead. Parker wears the same No. 12 his brother Nathan wore years earlier. With his twin brother Jake holding, sophomore Jason Larson boots the extra point. Somewhere in the home stands, mother Tracy Larson breathes a huge sigh of relief. "Until he gets that first kick, I am a little bit nervous," she said, "Then I can relax."
Wasatch High School has been in Heber City for more than century and with it exists a rich legacy of football.
WHS is a winning program that has only missed the playoffs once in the last 10 years. The Wasps reached the 3A state title game in 2002.
The stadium is named for two legendary coaches, Dan Wright and Ron Tree. When Tree was an assistant in the early 1980s, his brother Randy was on the team. Wasatch principal Paul Sweat wore the uniform from 1981 to 1984, where he was a running back and linebacker. His father and four brothers also played for the Wasps. The experienced administrator remembers defeating Union after a frigid snowstorm. "They had to push the snow off the field," he said.
There are many second- or third-generation football families in the area. The current head coach, Steve North, is also a proud alum. The former quarterback/defensive back graduated in 1978. Not only did his father play QB for the Wasps, but so did his son. Steve was an assistant under Ron Tree and has coached football for more than 20 years.
"It's been fun. The tradition is good. We have great support from the boosters, administration and community. It's different because the whole valley is the school and everyone supports it." North said.
Much to the delight of North and Heber City, there are plans for a new stadium, a concrete structure that should seat more than 2,400 people and have locker rooms underneath and a new 8-lane track.
"We are just in the design stages now, but that is what we are hoping," Watt said.
"We are in need. We hope to have it ready for next season," Sweat said. "We have a strong tradition and Wasatch High is the focal point of the community."
During the second and third quarters, Carrie Purdy, nervous mother of Wasps' senior quarterback Tyler Purdy, paced the visitor sideline as her son tossed a pair of touchdowns to teammate Keefer Babbitt. The Wasps lead 21-0 and the home fans are anticipating a blowout as the band plays the school fight song.
At Wasatch High, mothers wear their son's jerseys, not the girlfriends. They deserve it for all the hard work they do for the boys.
"There is a really good group of parents as well as a good group of kids. It takes everybody," said Janine Hodges, mother of No. 31, Gavin Hodges. "We want to do everything we can to support the kids."
Acting as boosters and parents, they plan team activities and meals, make decorations, distribute schedules and solicit financial support from local businesses.
From a fatherly standpoint, a group of fathers have coached most of the players on the team since the fifth grade.
When the Wasps go on the road, it is not uncommon for Wasatch fans to out number the opposing home team.
"It doesn't matter if you are from here. If you move here, you become part of the tradition," Janine Hodges said. "It's infectious. Everybody loves it. There is a great legacy here."
At the 6:10 mark in the third quarter, defensive lineman Tyson Kohler recovered a Richfield fumble. On the top row of the home bleachers, his parents Joel and Luann jump and clap wildly.
Few know Wasatch football better Joel and Luann Kohler. Over the last 12 years the Kohlers have seen their three sons come through the program and receive all-state honors; the couple has served as the booster club presidents; and they voluntarily pulled the team equipment trailer more than 6,800 miles to countless road games.
"It's one of the neatest things you can do because you develop a relationship with these boys," Luann said. "They are good kids, respectful, polite and grateful. I don't know what we are going to do when this season is over."
Tyson, No. 52, is their youngest son. His older brothers Ryan and Denver might say they taught him all he knows, but mom says Tyson is the best athlete.
On game days, Luann would make her sons' preferred pregame meal, then give them a good luck kiss and safeguard their cell phones and iPods. Each one has had serious girlfriends, but the family rule is girls are off limits on game day.
Joel and Luann both attended Wasatch High. She was on the drill team and he played football. He also coached his sons through little league. Having that special relationship with his sons and their friends has been the sweet part for Joel.
"We are here to help make their high school experiences great. We have been fortunate to have some talented athletes in the family," said the electrical contractor. "My career ended against Richfield, but I don't think it will end here today (for Tyson)."
That's when the game took a dramatic turn for Richfield. Minutes into the fourth, two WHS turnovers translated into 14 points. The Wildcats were on the verge of tying the game when Purdy hooked up with Babbitt for a 91-yard score to seal the win for Wasatch, 28-14. As the team gathered in the north end zone, North and the coaching staff took turns jumping and body surfing on the team huddle. "It's a tradition we started for when we win," North said with a laugh.
As coach North addresses the team, parents like Kelly and Lynette (her father Eldon coached with his cousin Dan Wright) Christensen gather to greet their son Coy, No. 50. They admitted it got stressful there for a moment in the final quarter. When asked about watching his youngest son play for Wasatch in the state playoffs, Kelly became emotional.
"Watching your youngest child and his success, that is what life is all about really," he said. "I am a proud parent."
Not far away, Tyson Kohler, in full gear, towered over his mother Luann. Perspiration dripped everywhere. Mother and son shared a moment.
"He played an awesome game," she said.
Over the public address system, a voice reminded students about a Halloween dance at the school. When it was over, a joke was cracked to Tyson about remembering who he was and what he stood for. Luann made a clarification.
"At our house the saying goes, 'Remember who you are and keep your pants zipped up.'"
Epilogue: The following Friday, Nov. 5, Wasatch hosted Judge Memorial. The Wasps trailed 28-7 early, but made a late rally. With 1.7 seconds on the clock, Tyler Purdy sprinted out to his right and completed a 36-yard Hail Mary to Keefer Babbitt in the corner of the end zone to incredibly pull the Wasps to within a point, pending the PAT. But agonizingly for kicker Jason Larson and the team, the kick sailed wide right. The Bulldogs won, 35-34, ending the Wasps' season.
Despite the heartbreaking loss and tears, given the proud tradition and community support, the fight song will be playing loud when Larson redeems himself in 2011.