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RIVALS SERIES: Shepherd, Ithaca renew their rivalry, hoping to revive echoes of the past

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, October 24, 2019, 7:07 pm

SHEPHERD — Often, what you pull out of your memory banks, when you’re plumbing back through the depths of time, doesn’t necessarily match what you see in front of you, when you go back decades later.

Oh, sure, there was still the vertical sign, spelling out ‘SHEPHERD’ on US-127, announcing the Maple Syrup Festival in the spring. And there’s still the big display with all the high school’s myriad athletic accomplishments right on the banks of Salt Creek, which flows right next to the village boundary.

The air horn at Veterans Memorial Stadium still had pride of place, even if that place has shifted 100 yards to the west, to the new field that was dedicated in 2009, featuring a north-south orientation, rather than old east-west.

But Jenny’s Diner wasn’t downtown anymore. 

Nor was the football program that Ben Brock grew up watching, and playing for, when he came back home.

Standing just outside the new stadium now, pointing out the landmarks, you can sense how much he wants to get at least ONE of those things back.

“It’s where the Aux Gym is, and the parking lot’s where we used to win championships. … Where the wrestling room is, that was the end, where the gates used to end, and you’d have to walk past all the Shep-Town folks to get to your locker room. It’s weird, because I still think I need to turn — our gym is in a different spot. It’s weird when you come back, because all your dreams are from back in the day,” said Brock, who came back to town as the middle school principal, then took over his alma mater’s football program last year. “My mom taught here for 37 years, so all my earliest memories were hanging around here as a little chubby kid. It is weird, still seeing this. 

“And really, since we changed (stadiums) out here, we’ve done nothing but lose. And we’ve gotta flip that. They (the current Bluejays) weren’t alive when we won.”

Going into Friday’s regular-season finale, Shepherd sits at 5-3, with a chance to play its way into the postseason for the first time since 2005. 

Standing in the way? 

It’s the same roadblock that every older Bluejays fan and former player remembers: The Ithaca Yellowjackets.

The two schools — separated by just a 19-mile stretch of US-127, on either side of Alma — will renew their decades-long rivalry on the football field, meeting for the first time in three seasons. That rivalry is the subject of the final installment of our Rivals Series this fall.

“Going to their old field, with that old air horn — it sends chills down my spine to think about it, about the tradition. The game kind of became known as ‘War Week’ there for many years. They got the better of us for many years. There was a stretch there where, man, we couldn’t get by them. Man, for seven, eight years in a row, they won the league, and we finished second. It was frustrating,” said Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook who, like Brock, is now coaching his alma mater. “It was very frustrating. That was THE game.”

Somewhere along the line, that got lost.

While Ithaca went on to ‘The Streak,’ and to be the subject of a student documentary, ‘The Climb,’ winning 156 of 171 games since 2006, and capturing five state titles in a six-year span, Shepherd fell into a funk that Brock is just beginning to try to pull the Bluejays out of. From 2006 through last year’s 1-8 campaign, the Bluejays won 28 games in 14 seasons, only posting a winning record three times (2008, 2009, 2016).

The watershed moment might’ve been the last meeting of the two teams as rivals in the Central State Activities Association, back in 2005. Both 2-2 coming in, the Bluejays won 35-18, and finished 7-3, making the playoffs for the 16th time in 18 seasons. The Yellowjackets, in Hessbrook’s third season after taking over for his mentor, current Lansing Catholic coach Jim Ahern, went 4-5 and missed the playoffs. The only other time they’ve missed the postseason since then was in 2008, when Shepherd knocked them off, 27-16, in Week 9, to keep them out of the playoffs. 

Since then, two vastly different directions.

“They really didn’t start winning at Ithaca until after we graduated, but then their program really took off. What we had done from that ’87 to ’95 span, they went over and beyond, with all the championships they’ve won their recently. … What impressed me the most was what I used to see here in Shepherd: We always felt we were going to win the game, no matter what. That’s what you see out of the Ithaca kids right now. They truly believe,” said Brock, who became close with the Ithaca coaching staff when he was coaching at Grayling, and later as an administrator at Port Huron. “They’re the guys that I hung out with at clinics in the past, when I coached, and I really enjoy being around them, and I respect what they’ve done. I became a huge Ithaca fan, when I went into administration. But now that I’m back in Shepherd, we’ve gotta go back to the old rivalry.”

While most of the kids who will be in uniform Friday don’t remember the Ithaca and Shepherd that Brock and Hessbrook conjure up in their memory banks, it’s still real for many of their parents, on both sides of the rivalry. 

Back in the day, it was THE game that meant so much to both schools.

“It’s been heated for a long time. I don’t mean heated in a bad way. I mean that we respect them, and I hope they respect us. It was always a battle. That was the game we always circled on our calendar when it came out, and I’m sure they did, too — for most of the 80s and 90s,” said Hessbrook, who remembers losing 14-10 to the Bluejays as a junior in 1983, but getting them back 38-12 as a senior. “And, for most of the late 80s and 90s, they had our number. It swung a little bit the other way, but it’s been a battle over the years. … If you won that game, you knew you had a good team. That’s how we judged ourselves or gauged how the team would be.”

For nearly two decades, it was a matchup of Hall of Fame coaches, with Ahern roaming the Ithaca sidelines for 22 years, and Gene Hackney wearing his trademark white jeans on the Bluejays bench for 18. When Gene retired after the 1996 season, his younger brother, Glenn took over the Shepherd program. 

“He (Gene) was always making a fashion statement. He became this tough guy, this tough math teacher, and he became ‘old guy funny.’ That guy just drops knowledge when he doesn’t even mean to. That’s what’s so fun about hanging around with him,” said Brock, who still spends time with both of his mentors, having played for Gene and coached with Glenn. “I learned so much from those two guys. Even our play names — we have quite a few that we brought back this season, to pay homage to those great guys that built this here. We’re going to run the 950 quick trap, and the 942 power. It’s fun, and I think the kids — I know their uncles and their dads all went through it. … The scales were tipped in our favor (back then). We never lost to Ithaca. But you could tell they were a good program. I have many friends from that era — I’m not trying to rub salt into the wounds. I didn’t know the Ithaca that’s now, put it that way. To come back two decades later, and realize they’re the ones that are the champs, and we’ve gotta do something about it.”

In the 18 years that the elder Hackney and Ahern went head-to-head — spanning the last nine years for each in the Central Michigan League, and the first nine of the existence of the Central State Activities Association — one team or the other won the league title 12 times. After the Yellowjackets won the first CSAA title, the Bluejays won seven straight. Shepherd went 79-2 in conference play from 1987-95.

The winner of the Ithaca-Shepherd game won the CSAA title 11 of the 18 years leading up to their final year in the conference together, in 2005.

When the two programs moved into the Tri-Valley Conference in 2006, they went into different divisions — Shepherd in the Central and Ithaca in the West — but kept the game up as a non-conference meeting. 

With Ithaca winning the last eight — to take the lead in the rivalry record since 1950, at 29-27-2 — the game quietly slipped off the schedule after 2016, mostly because of disinterest. 

But both coaches wanted to bring it back. 

“It was important to us. The previous regime wanted to get us off the schedule, for whatever reason. I talked to (Shepherd AD) Jay (Travis), and I’ve known Jay since we were in high school, and I was like ‘This is a game we need to play.’ When Ben came back there last year, that’s the first thing he said. ‘We gotta get Ithaca back on the schedule. We gotta play each other.’ We’re close, we’re similar in size — and it’s a great rivalry. It has been for a long time. I was really glad that they wanted to do that,” Hessbrook said. “I was glad to get it back.”

So was Brock.

“It’s good that we’re able to bring this rivalry back. I think it needs to be on the schedule every single year. Obviously, their program is loaded, and they’ve done all the right things there. On paper, this probably shouldn’t be that much of a matchup, but we’ve improved every single game this year, and right now, we’re feeling pretty good about being able to go and at least compete against this team,” Brock said. “Even talking to people from that era — they’re all the parents of the middle school kids I’m principal of right now— so they get to talk about it. And anytime they get a taste of something like this, this Friday night … honestly we need this. These small towns, they need this. I went to the Shepherd Bar for Sunday brunch, and everybody’s smiling, everybody’s happy, because we’re winning. And that’s a good thing. Ithaca’s enjoyed that for a long time, and they’re going to continue enjoying that, but it’s about time for Shepherd to get back doing that, as well.”

Getting it back on the schedule is step one.

Getting it back to meaningful is the next step.

“It has to. It’s going to be some time, but how we’ve jumped as a program from last year to this year, we’re ahead of schedule right now. … It’s gotta be a buy-in for your entire community. … It’s easy for kids in the offeseason to go play a baseball game, to go play open gym basketball, but if you’re coming to football, it’s working out. We’re going to work. We’ve told our parents who are here — because they’re all my buddies (from school) — ‘I’m not coming to Johnny to tell him to lift, I’m coming to you. And you’ve gotta help us out with holding our kids accountable. And we had 40-plus kids in the weight room every single day in the offseason, and that’s a big reason we’re experiencing some success right now,” Brock said. “This isn’t work for me, coming out to practice after running a staff meeting. This is my favorite time of the day. It really is. I get to come out here with these kids. And they’re over-achieving this year. I said to them at the very beginning, ‘You’re either the beginning of the evolution, or you’re the end of the bad. You get to choose.’ And they’ve gone over and beyond.”