The Banks Braves lost their state championship game last weekend to La Grande. Gone is their 22-game win streak and hopes of repeating as champions of Oregon 4A football. But while on the wrong end of a relatively lopsided scoreboard, these guys aren't losers.
Winning can be both a literal and figurative term. There are also short- and long-term ways of looking at it. While it's inarguable that the Braves were on the losing end of the season's biggest game, it was equally inarguable they deserved better.
That's not to say La Grande wasn't the better team, because they were — at least on this night. But rather that these guys did the work, made the necessary sacrifices and overcame the odds stacked against them in the wake of some very sizable departures. And that matters.
Gone were all-state starters, quarterback Hayden Vandehey, receiver and defensive back Blake Markham, tight end Blake Gobel, and linebacker Hayden Gobel. Not to mention all-league linebacker and running back Josiah Ochoa, along with emotional leader Bret Cameron. A talented group, but also one thought by many to offer an "it" factor that's often replicated but never duplicated. But what wasn't missing from this year's Braves squad was a belief in their program, their coaches and undoubtedly themselves.
This wasn't a team of vocal leaders. They had fun, but they played with the type of all-business attitude that entailed little talk, and action, action and more action.
Guys like Bryson Cook, defensive linemen Risdon White and Walker Copley and Gabe Streblow, who played virtually the whole season with an injured shoulder. Running back Martial Stegemeier, quarterback Tanner Shook and center Andrew Nichols, who missed the Braves' final two games with a knee injury. Not to mention receiver and defensive backs Jacob Slifka and Jarred Evans, the latter of whom started the season at quarterback but willingly moved to the receiver position so as to provide the team with a more dynamic look on the outside.
These players were each standouts in their own way, but were also hyper-aware of the fact that they were ultimately only as good as the players around them. Something commonly known, but not-so-commonly applied.
After last Saturday's game, there was anger, frustration and of course tears. In the postgame huddle, while La Grande celebrated their championship just 50 yards away, Banks was left to wonder what nearly was: a second straight state title; undefeated season; and a legacy few at the high school level could dream of. But while the season was over, the praise was still coming. Not from the people who'd watched it play out from a distance, but from the coaches who'd been front and center to see it behind the scenes.
They saw the work. They saw the commitment. And they saw the fruits of it all beginning over the summer, continuing on with the season opener versus Gladstone last September and ending in the east end zone Nov. 30 at Hermiston High School. And that wasn't lost on them.
"I'll just say that these guys have a special place in my heart, because everyone counted them out, but I knew it wasn't the case," Banks head coach Cole Linehan said. "Everybody talked about that senior class. Everybody talked about how that's what got us there. But these kids didn't care and just worked their butts off and they were just hungry.
"I always talked about not being complacent and not being satisfied with things. And I'll say this: This group is the most coachable group that I've ever had, and they just believe and believed in the program, and I appreciate that."
And I appreciate it as well.
The scoreboard may say they lost, but these guys aren't losers — and I'm pretty sure there's an entire town and a handful of coaches who'll back me up on that.
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