When you suffer the state's longest losing streak — a 26-game drought that ran across four seasons — the bar of expectations drops low. But no one bothered to tell that to Estacada's football team of 1992.
The school opted to play an independent schedule for a couple seasons in hopes of finding some measure of success. The losing skid came to an end early in 1990 when a varsity team that saw more than a dozen sophomores in the starting lineup pulled off a shocker over a Philomath team that was ranked in the top 10.
The Rangers would finish 4-5 that season, then boost their record to 6-3 the following year. When it was time for their senior campaign, the Rangers were thrown back into the Tri-Valley Conference.
The real test was about to begin.
"We had gone 0-fer for so long that nothing was expected from us," said quarterback of the squad John James. "But we had something we wanted to prove to the rest of the league."
Head coach Kevin Guay was shaking up the high school scene by implementing the potent Run-and-Shoot offense, made famous by Darrel 'Mouse' Davis at nearby Portland State University. James remembers attending a summer camp at Civic Stadium where pro quarterbacks Neil Lomax (St. Louis) and Eric Wilhelm (Cincinnati) gave insights into the pass-heavy scheme.
"It was great to be learning from guys like that," James said. "I remember these guys from some of the big schools who couldn't throw the ball, and there I was 5-9 and 145 pounds, but I could throw a football. I always wished I was 6-foot-4."
The team's confidence mushroomed when they started putting up touchdown after touchdown during a summer 7-on-7 tournament in West Linn.
"We had a group of kids who had played together for a long time," said star receiver John Williams, who was voted all-state at both receiver and defensive back that season. "We knew we could win, we knew we could compete — there was no doubt."
But would the offense still hit on all cylinders when the regular season started and 11 tacklers lined up on the other side of the ball?
"Nobody was really throwing the ball that much, but our coach brought in the run-and-shoot, and we slung the ball around a lot," James said. "It was definitely a new look for the teams we were facing."
The Rangers lined up with four receivers spread across the field. James would take the snap and quickly find the open man. On a typical night, he would put the ball into the air at least 30 times.
"I was our leading rusher that year," James laughs. "It was all about getting the ball out to our receivers and letting them do some good things."
Williams did a lot of good things that season — his first time playing in the wideout spot on the edge of the field. He was the target on a bunch of long bombs.
"When you're a kid playing pickup ball, no one does handoffs," Williams laughs. "I had been catching the ball since I was 8 years old."
The wins piled up and late in the season, the Rangers found themselves taking the field for their most meaningful game since the 1953 squad reached the championship game.
Estacada was facing Sherwood — a win would clinch a playoff spot, while the loser was out of the race.
Sherwood blitzed to a 14-0 lead in the first half only to see Estacada pull even in the fourth quarter.
The Bowmen found the end zone in the final minutes.
The extra point was blocked, but the damage had been done.
Or many had thought.
After the kickoff, Estacada took over at its own 35-yard line with about a minute on the clock. James fired a deep pass that got the team across midfield, but time was ticking.
In a crisis, go with what you know.
James fired the next pass deep to the back corner of the end zone where Williams tracked it down.
"John was very fast and had great hands," James said. "It was a fade pass to the back corner — our favorite play, we ran it all the time."
Add the extra point. Rangers win. This unlikely squad was into the playoffs, sharing the league title with The Dalles.
The first playoff game meant a trip down Interstate-5 to dispatch Cottage Grove 28-21 in a game that wasn't that close.
"We had some big plays, some touchdowns, called back by penalty, but we were in control the whole way," James said.
"I just remember it being special to the community," Williams said. "We walked out onto the field for that road game, and I was surprised by how loud it was. We all fed off that energy."
The most shocking moment in the first-rounder came before kickoff.
"They started the national anthem, the helmets came off and we heard this loud gasp from our sideline," James laughs.
After an early-season loss to The Dalles, members of the team gathered and made a pact that everyone, including the coaches, would sport a mohawk if the team bounced back and won the Tri-Valley title.
"Most of us had kind of forgotten about that by the end of the season, but our wide receiver coach Jerry Rose did not, and cut his head into a mohawk," James laughs. "So we drive down on Friday night, have our team meal and head back to our rooms at the hotel. I had the razor and we shaved everyone a mohawk — none of the parents knew about it until the anthem."
The next week, Estacada hosted Douglas in the state quarterfinals. The school brought in bleachers for the end zones and extra seating on the visitor's side, but nothing was going to be enough for this night.
"We walked over to the field three hours before game time and the stadium was packed — it was electrifying," James said. "That season was a big deal around town. The entire town would close down Friday night and come out to the game."
The night turned ugly in a hurry with heavy rain creating a mud bog. The only scoring came early, and Estacada hung on for a 12-7 win.
"There were seven or eight fumbles in that game, it was a mud pit and nobody could do anything with the ball," James said. "The entire fourth quarter, I would take the snap, run around until somebody came around, then I'd fall down. We were just trying to waste the time."
The surprising run came to an end the following week with a 42-8 loss to eventual-champion St. Helens in the semifinals.
James was voted all-state at quarterback and Guay was named Coach of the Year.
The Class of '92 had changed the fortunes of Estacada football for years to come. The Rangers have become playoff mainstays over the last 25 years, advancing as far as the semifinals three times — in 2008, 2010 and again this past year.
"It was a magical time back then with a bunch of guys who went out and worked hard and were determined to get the job done," James said.
Williams is an area manager for a water treatment plant, which has him traveling a Northwest circuit. He is married to his wife of 16 years Adrienne (Fischel), and the couple is raising daughters Elena, 12, and Kate, 10. The family has a cabin on Mt. Hood where they spend time hiking and mountain biking in the summer before switching to skiing and snowboarding in the winter months. Williams also serves as a volunteer assistant with the Estacada High football team focusing his time on the defensive backs.
"My job is great. I get to see a lot of different places, and I have the freedom to set my own schedule, so that gives me a lot of family time," Williams said.
James has spent the past 19 years working as appraiser with Multnomah County.
"The flexibility of my job is really nice, and you see something new every day," James said.
His passion remains sports, and he is a nonstop force on the Estacada sidelines helping out across football, basketball and baseball in both the high school and youth levels. He is the offensive coordinator for the Estacada High football team.
"I'm a sports fanatic, and I love the kids," James said. "It's fun to see things come full circle."
James is married to his wife Amy, high school sweethearts, who are celebrating 20 years of marriage. Their oldest son Cody will be attending Linn-Benton in the fall, while their youngest Cory is entering the seventh grade.
Look for this story in the Aug. 10, print edition of The Estacada News.