In the Nevada desert, a team elevates a town

AP News
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Posted: Oct 31, 2014 4:34 AM
In the Nevada desert, a team elevates a town

ALAMO, Nev. (AP) — Life follows a familiar pattern in this impossibly green valley straddling a two-lane highway in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Locals get in their pickup trucks on weekday mornings and make the hour and a half drive down U.S. 93 to jobs in Las Vegas. Some wait for a clandestine bus to take them to work on secret projects at Area 51 just north of town.

Sundays are reserved for church and family, a foundation laid more than a century ago by Mormon settlers and followed faithfully by their descendants.

And on Fridays in the fall, they cram the new concrete bleachers of the football field at Pahranagat Valley High School to watch what may be the best little football team in America.

Under lights salvaged from another school, they cheer as their sons, grandsons and great grandsons demolish yet another team in the eight-man game. Almost every boy at the school is involved with the team, and none of them have ever known what it is to lose a high school football game.

The streak stood at 75 games on a recent Friday night, the longest in the nation. The eight seniors who would be honored before the game were in sixth grade when it started.

"We don't talk a lot about it," said principal Mike Strong, who also serves as defensive coordinator. "The story we want to think about is how good we can get."

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To call Alamo a one stoplight town would be to elevate the status of the small collection of buildings surrounding the high school some 90 miles north of Las Vegas. Stretching 25 miles long in between mountain ranges bordering Area 51 and the equally top-secret Nevada Test Site, the entire Pahranagat Valley is home to about 1,200 people, many of them direct descendants of the original settlers.

A few players have caught on with college programs over the years, but recruiters don't come to eight-man games looking for talent. Besides, most of the Panthers are already spoken for by the Mormon church, which will soon send them off on missions around the world.

"The lessons we're able to teach through football are far more important than just football," coach Ken Higbee said. "We want to try and create great young men and outstanding leaders of tomorrow."

On this night, the team from Sandy Valley arrived for a showdown at would decide home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Sidewinders also were unbeaten, averaging of 54.8 points in the wide-open game of eight-man football, not far behind the 58.7-point average for PVHS.

"Seniors, it's your night," Higbee told his players in the locker room before the game. "I don't want to tell you how much I appreciate each and every one of you for the role you've had in this program the last 10-12 years."

Yes, 10-12 years. From second grade on many of these kids had been schooled in the same fundamentals.

Against Sandy Valley, the experience showed. Pahranagat's defenders followed their assignments, and protected their lanes. On offense, Panthers backs ran through gaping holes, and sophomore quarterback Tabor Maxwell displayed a nice touch.

"The team that blocks the best and the team that tackles the best is usually going to win the game and they're always the best at that," Sandy Valley coach Brett Kramer said. "Add in a little skill and they're deadly."

At the end of the first quarter it was 32-0. At halftime it was 48-6, and players danced to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" on the PA before taking a knee around their coaches.

"I'm not sure what they're saying over there across the field," Higbee told his team. "But what they're thinking is that they've never seen anything like us before."

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Vaughn Higbee was a young athletic director at PVHS in 1972 when he and a few others scraped away a cornfield next to the school. With a place to play, all he needed was to put together the first football team in the school's history.

The first high school football game Vaughn Higbee ever attended was the one he found himself coaching.

"We got killed," Higbee said. "We were 0-8, didn't win a game. We have always had good kids, but we were sorry coaches then."

The elder Higbee went to clinics in Reno, learning enough to know he should be concentrating on teaching balance and fundamentals. He ran off copies of rules for parents, who didn't know the game.

The next year, the Panthers played for state title.

"I couldn't ever dream they would have this kind of success. All we were trying to do was survive the first year," Higbee said. "But these kids just believe when they step out on the field that they're going to win."

His son now coaches the team. Another son is the offensive coordinator, and three younger Higbees play on the team.

Actually, almost everyone plays on the team. There are 102 students in grades 9-12 at Pahranagat Valley. Of the 42 boys, 33 are on the football roster, two others are managers and one is in charge of video.

At halftime of the game against Sandy Valley, the future players were introduced. Grade schoolers lined up on the field, then quickly ran off to play in a pickup game.

"I scouted one game they had to be second-, third-graders run around with helmets out there at halftime," said Kramer, the Sandy Valley coach. "They start them young and keep them going."

Ken Higbee says he was only out to please one person when he started as coach 17 years ago.

"I just wanted to be like my dad," he said.

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Early in the second half, three Sandy Valley players had already been knocked out of the game, when the announcer came over the PA.

"Please report over to the Sidewinder sideline," she said. "They need EMT's — again."

The game was physically brutal, but at least Sandy Valley didn't quit. The team from Virginia City did earlier this season, deciding to start their five-hour bus trip back home at halftime after being outscored 60-6.

Meanwhile, the biggest problem on the Panthers' sideline was a stomach ache.

By the time the Panthers came out for the second half, they knew the drill. The first team would go out for one series offensively and defensively. Then the backups and freshman would get their chance.

"The only way they're going to lose is to beat themselves by getting way too fancy," Kramer said. "And they're way too smart to do that."

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The final score was 64-14, with a running clock helping make the second half mercifully short. Players lined up for traditional ringing of the old school bell, then went back to the field for another tradition — picking up garbage and anything left by players or fans.

The ice cream shop where players liked to celebrate after games is now closed, but these Panthers aren't a team that does much celebrating, anyway. On a team that has won 76 straight, they're matter-of-fact.

Most play their last games when they hang up their high school uniforms. The biggest thing awaiting most of the seniors are the two-year missions they'll start next summer.

By then, juniors will become seniors and the kids in eighth grade will be official members of the team. If all goes according to plan, there will be a seventh straight state championship banner to hang on the bleachers.

The familiar pattern of life in the Pahranagat Valley goes on.