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high school football:

Rivals Chaparral, Eldorado fired up for Cleat Game

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Leila Navidi

Chaparral player James Bryant pauses during the first quarter of Chaparral High School’s first football game against Moapa Valley High School in Overton Friday, September 2, 2011.

Chaparral Football

Chaparral player James Bryant pauses during the first quarter of Chaparral High School's first football game against Moapa Valley High School in Overton Friday, September 2, 2011. Launch slideshow »
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Chaparral High School football player Toure Williams can’t get this image out of his head.

Not in the minutes after his team lost last fall in the “Cleat Game” to rival Eldorado High, and not one year later as the teams prepare for this year’s installment of one of Southern Nevada’s longest and most storied matchups, dating back nearly four decades.

Williams, a senior wide receiver and defensive back, remembers the helpless feeling he experienced when watching players from Eldorado storm the field in celebration after narrowly defeating the Cowboys, 28-27, in overtime.

Chaparral led by 13 points in the first half, but couldn’t hold on in a devastating loss. As Chaparral players hung their heads in defeat on one sideline, with tears in the eyes of several players, the scene on the Eldorado sideline was one of pure jubilation.

“After that game, I had a little tear of joy,” Eldorado’s Ty Nihipali said. “Winning was something big for all of us. Something we’ll never forget.”

When Chaparral (1-6) opened practice Monday in preparation for this year’s game, Williams was quick to remind teammates about what happened last year. He delivered an emotional message, encouraging teammates to seize the moment in this truly once-in-a-lifetime moment. Like all seniors, he realizes Friday night’s game at host Eldorado will be his last Cleat Game, where the victor gains control of a cleat that former Los Angeles Rams great Merlin Olsen donated in the 1970s for the rivalry and which sits, bronzed, on a 2-foot base.

The Cleat is the prize for the winner of the annual football game between Chaparral and Eldorado.

The Cleat is the prize for the winner of the annual football game between Chaparral and Eldorado.

“It means everything to me, our team and the school,” Williams said. “You don’t know how happy and proud I would be to bring the cleat back my senior year. I want to give this school something to have hope about and something to believe about. It’s go hard or go home.”

At Chaparral, you see, winning Friday night would be more than taking control of the cleat. It would help the struggling football team gain momentum for its offseason conditioning program and provide a boost of confidence at a school in the middle of some significant changes.

Chaparral is one of five turnaround schools in the Clark County School District that has been reorganized from top to bottom through a federal grant program aimed to improve low-performing schools. Everything from new school administrators and teachers, upgraded equipment and teaching tools, a new coat of paint on the walls and a changed attitude have been part of the first two months of the school year.

Athletically, the Cowboys struggle to compete in virtually every sport, often on the wrong end of lopsided scores and frequently struggling to find bodies to fill out varsity rosters — a constant the past decade.

The football team has won two games in the past three years, each against third-year Sunrise Mountain, which is still looking for its first win in program history. Last week Chaparral led 24-7 in the third quarter against Valley before suffering a brutal last-minute loss, 27-24.

While the team has made tremendous strides under first-year coach Bill Froman, the moral victory of a close contest against Valley wasn’t satisfying enough for the players. That’s a step in the right direction, Froman said.

“It was awesome to see the emotions you saw after the (Valley) loss. It showed how much they care,” Froman said. “That has carried over to this week. Our seniors have really been the inspiration because they are so fired up about the game and it means so much to them.”

Simply taking part in such a prestigious game will be a welcome change. Most weeks, a Chaparral game is poorly attended and hardly registers around town with media. Friday, it will be the marquee game, providing the players an invaluable stage to showcase their talents and the strides the program has made.

Eldorado (2-5) has won the last two games against Chaparral and the players don’t need to be reminded of the rivalry’s significance. Last year, Eldorado was guilty of underestimating a Chaparral team that entered riding a 17-game losing streak, not expecting Chaparral to play with such emotion and passion.

This year, they will be ready for the opening whistle.

“This game is big for everybody — the community, the school, just everybody,” said Eldorado defensive end Mike Williams , who will arguably be the best player in Friday’s game. “There is just so much emotion behind it. It’s been that way for years."

Chaparral holds a 23-15 series edge, but all that matters for the players is the 2011 contest. With both already eliminated from playoff contention and with just two games remaining for each team, this won’t be a typical Friday night on the local gridiron.

“I remember holding the cleat up last year and running around the field like we had won the Super Bowl,” Eldorado’s defensive back Darion Ashley said. “Just being able to play in such a prestigious game is something you’re (thankful) for.”

That’s something echoed by the players at Chaparral.

“Eldorado better be ready. I will tell you that right now,” Toure Williams said.

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