Remembering the day of the underdog

One football game in November 1996 might have been Elsie Allen's brightest athletic moment. (PD staff photo)

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Elsie Allen is hosting Cardinal Newman in a football game this Friday, and you know what that means. When the Lobos go up against the Redwood Empire’s dominant program, the results are best viewed through half-covered eyes. Scores like 48-13 (2009), 63-0 (2008), 56-12 (2007) and 59-0 (2006) have become commonplace.

But if you think the outcome is predetermined, you need to take a trip back to the first week in November 1996, when Bill Clinton was voted to a second term as president, New York City was still buzzing over the Yankees’ first World Series title under Joe Torre, and Elsie Allen beat Newman, 16-7, in what many still consider the greatest upset in local memory.

A little context: This was Elsie Allen’s second season of varsity football. The 1995 squad, overwhelmingly composed of juniors, had won one game. Going into the contest against Cardinal Newman on Nov. 2, 1996, the Lobos were 1-6.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, were a true juggernaut, rumbling onto the Elsie Allen campus with an 18-game overall winning streak, and a 15-game streak in the North Bay League. They were the defending North Coast Section 2A Redwood Empire champions, heck-bent on a repeat, and were ranked fourth among all Div. II teams in California. Led by sensational quarterback Corey Willison, Newman was averaging 35 points a game.

Sometimes, for whatever reason, the underdog simply knows in his heart that he is about to beat the champion. And sometimes he, uh, doesn’t.

“We didn’t have a very good week of practice,” recalled Larry Arterberry, then — and now again — the Lobos coach.

In fact, several players were so intimidated by the Cardinals that they opted not to play. “One was a captain,” said Justin Otten, Elsie Allen’s leading tackler that night. “I think they regret to this day that they didn’t play.”

The game seemed to follow a predictable script when Cardinal Newman went down the field to score on its first possession, Chris Summers’ 2-yard touchdown run giving his team a 7-0 lead.

“Cardinal Newman scored first, and it was like, ‘Oh, (shoot), we’re done,’” said Jeff Baumunk, a senior tight end and linebacker with Elsie Allen in 1996. “Everyone feared Newman at the time.”

Then something wholly unexpected happened. The Lobos took only two plays to fire back, with 6-foot-7 quarterback Luke Zoeller connecting with Jerome Godsey on a 63-yard touchdown pass. (Godsey would go on to play baseball at the University of Oklahoma.) Justin Otten’s extra point tied it at 7-7.

If that wasn’t strange enough, Elsie scored again early in the second quarter when Zoeller hit Otten with a 31-yard scoring strike on a third-and-long play. The PAT failed, and Elsie Allen led 13-7. That’s how it stood at halftime. In the locker room, Arterberry told his players to keep doing what they were doing. He didn’t mention winning or losing.

An amazing sight greeted the Lobos when they took the field after intermission. Expecting a drubbing, Elsie fans had largely avoided the game. But the Lobos’ gutsy start had spread through the neighborhood by word of mouth, and the bleachers were filling as the second half began.

The Cardinals had begun to realize that the scoring wouldn’t come easy this night. Several of their top performers, including Willison and Summers, had grown up with many of the Elsie players. In fact, if they hadn’t opted for Cardinal Newman, they would have been suiting up for the Lobos in this game.

“Still to this day, if I played defense against Corey Willison, I could tell you every play that’s coming,” Otten said. “I knew the way he moved his leg or twitched. We had his number.”

“Rotten Otten,” Willison said by phone this week, allowing himself a chuckle. “I knew Justin since I was 8 years old. We won four championships together in Pop Warner.”

The Lobos kept Newman out of the end zone during a grueling, scoreless third quarter and much of the fourth. Bear Gray, Elsie’s defensive coordinator, had made the key strategic adjustment, stacking the box with eight defenders and daring Willison to throw the ball. When he did, they were there for several interceptions, including a big one by Baumunk with about four minutes left.

And the attendance continued to swell.

“By the end of the third quarter, the stands were erupting, like it was the Super Bowl or something,” Otten said. “It was the first time ever the school believed in us.”

The final insult came with 22 seconds left, when Otten blasted a 43-yard field goal to make the score 16-7 and all but seal the upset. Giddy fans poured onto the playing field prematurely. Baumunk remembers seeing his basketball coach and his ex-girlfriend’s dad, all smiles and backslaps. Officials hit Elsie with a delay-of-game penalty after managing to herd the noncombatants to the sidelines.

Moments later, the Lobos had their first-ever league win, and it was a whopper.

The Cardinals rode home in silence. When they gathered for their usual Monday-morning film session, coach Ed Monahan didn’t bother turning on the projector. “They beat you, and we don’t need to watch it,” he said. “Everyone here made mistakes, and we all know what they were.”

The biggest mistake, no doubt, was looking ahead to a showdown with undefeated Montgomery a week later. Newman had not devoted some of its practice time to Monty that week, as rumors suggested, but the players clearly had the Vikings on their minds.

Interestingly, neither team lost another game in 1996. The Lobos ended their season with consecutive wins over Terra Linda and Santa Rosa. Cardinal Newman rebounded to beat Montgomery, 28-18, in that highly anticipated battle, finished 9-1 and went on to win the Redwood Empire title again, knocking off Marin Catholic in the final.
But 16 years later, that loss to Elsie still sticks in Willison’s craw.

“I was bitter for a long time,” he said. “I’m still bitter. It ruined our perfect season and our No. 4 ranking. Still to this day I get trouble from a lot of guys I graduated with. I had a conversation just the other day, and someone asked me, ‘Can you please explain how you lost to Elsie Allen?’”

The game immediately lifted the mood on the Elsie Allen campus. Signs displaying the 16-7 score began showing up at other sporting events, and it would be mentioned prominently at graduation ceremonies in June. Several of the Lobos’ other teams did well that year. When Elsie beat Newman in football again two years later, it was hardly considered an upset.

But the big win over Cardinal Newman did not prove to be the turning point the Elsie Allen sports program hoped it would be. Fourteen years later, the Lobos still struggle to compete with the established NBL schools in the major team sports. It’s a lasting source of frustration for the Elsie alumni.

Still, they’ll always have that one monumental win of ’96.

“Whenever people from Newman and Elsie are on a team together, it’s not talked about,” former Lobos linebacker Greg Caruso said. “It’s out of mutual respect. But it doesn’t stop me from giving them a wink or a sideways smile.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com