Cowboys remember 50th anniversary of 1968 state title bid

The 1968 state runner-up Meeker Cowboys football team: (top) assistant coach Lopez, assistant coach Sanchez, assistant coach Starbuck, coach Tucker, Mike Brubaker, Mike Lugenbeel, Gary Merrian, Joe Merriam, Frank Stewart, Elfar Garcia, Darrell Arnold, Keith Watson, Mike McGruder, Rick Nieslanik, Dave Allen, Jerry Oldland, Larry Talkington. (Middle) Rich Parr, George Howey, DeNile Atwood, George Back, Jim Jirak, Steve Nieslanik, Jim Cook, David Coats, John Villa, Ed Harp, Ray Bicknell, Jim McKean, Jim Pearce, Norman Tucker, Terry Ivie, manager Philip Weir. (Bottom) Terry Miller, Tom Jirak, David Smith, Kyle Richardson, Steve Gianinetti, John Hutchins, Jim Bloomfield, Mark Etter, Hal Pearce, Thad Hauck, Brad Irwin, Larry Moyer, Dick Banzhof and Blaine Bradshaw. Jim Cook Photo

MEEKER I This Friday, Sept. 28, the MHS coaching staff will be recognizing the 50th anniversary of the 1968 football team during the halftime of the Meeker-Grand Valley game.

That year, the Cowboys were a perfect 11-0 going into the state championship game and while losing their bid to become Meeker’s first state championship team, the story behind their season is one that has always reflected Cowboy football and still does five decades later .

As with the telling of any story, the seeds of their Don Quixote quest were planted the prior year with the senior class of ’68. That year after losing their season opener 13-0 to the much bigger Grand Junction team, coach Ed Duffy’s squad rolled off seven straight wins over their opponents, 186-13.

Fresh from their 42-0 homecoming victory over Glenwood (who would remember that drubbing exactly one year later) the ‘Pokes squared off against the Craig Bulldogs for the league title. Despite the gritty play of senior Northwest League stars like Phil Jensen, Gary and Ted Stewart, Ron Taussig, Doug Moody, Mike Sullivan, Donald Merriam, Bruce Doryell, Theron Strickland, Steve Harp, Ray Anderson, Rod Crawford and Chuck Bewley, Meeker finished in the rarest of all games, a 0-0 tie. Playoffs to determine who would move on in the state playoff system back then simply involved placing the ball on 50 yard line and giving each team six plays to decide which side of the mid-field line the pigskin finished. Both teams then exchanged blows with the ball barely moving until 220 lb. Mike Lloyd broke free for a 47-yard touchdown on Craig’s next to last play which eventually propelled the Bulldogs on to the state finals.

While most knowledgeable local sports fans would give the nod as far as pure natural talent to that year’s team, the Class of ’69 apparently learned enough other hard lessons from that loss which motivated them the next season. Only two first-year MHS head coaches have ever led their team to the state finals. Had you told former Cowboy star Bob Tucker that he’d be the first (MHS girls’ basketball coach Richard Atkins was the second with his one-point victory in 1995) he and line coach Paul Starbuck might have not worried so much about replacing 13 seniors.

Their worries quickly eased as the Cowboys gave their fans a glimpse of what it was going to be like as the Meeker opened up with 33-0 and 34-0 wins over Steamboat and Palisade. While beating up on bigger area league schools was the norm that season, the Hayden Tigers (who would go on to win the state title in their smaller school division) gave Meeker their best game till then. Still, Tucker’s team won 33-13 as Meeker broke open for four second-half scores.

Things only got better as the Cowboys took revenge on the Bulldogs for knocking them out a year earlier, 32-0, before Meeker blanked Rangely 19-0. Racking up 489 yards in offense, the Cowboys then beat Steamboat 42-0. In the first six games, Meeker was just giving up 2.2 points per game.

“I don’t think people know how good our defense really was,” reflected quarterback Jim Cook. “People like Larry (Talkington), Ed Harp, Keith Watson and Frank Stewart hit as hard as anybody but it was Jim (Bear) McKean who was our spiritual leader. Jim only weighed 150 lbs. but he had more smart football sense than any high school linebacker I’ve ever seen. Take out that last contest and our defense only surrendered six points a game that year. “

The Rifle Bears were the next to fall, 26-7, while Rangely gave Meeker all they could handle in a second rematch before bowing 27-19. That set the stage for the league title against Glenwood. After a scoreless first period, Meeker hit paydirt first but the bigger Demons came back the second half and owned a 14-7 lead with just 5:25 to go. Faking the pass to Steve Nieslanik, a 48-yard draw play by fullback McKean 30 seconds later tied up the game following Frank Stewart’s successful point after touchdown to send it into sudden death overtime for the second time in two years. Somewhat more familiar with the situation, the Cowboys then outplayed their opponents the next six plays and behind big catches by Mike Lugenbeel and a 20-yard pass and catch and lateral from Talkington to McKean, the Cowboys enjoyed an 18-yard advantage to win the right to move on.

On a snow-covered field in their quarterfinal contest against another much larger opponent, the Fruita Wildcats, with just 1:47 left in the half, finally broke the ice with a 90-yard touchdown march. While Frank Stewart’s 65-yard reception came just yards short of a touchdown the first play after the kickoff, it was Elefar Garcia who used his jumping abilities to snag a reflected pass on fourth and two that turned the day around for Meeker.

“I just jumped as high as I could and caught the ball, expecting to get blasted but they never hit me and I just fell across the line,” said Garcia of his forever remembered catch. Inspired by that quick score, a second half 17-yard touchdown reception by Garcia and another touchdown by Lugenbeel one play after Gary Merriam’s fumble recovery helped seal the victory, 20-13.

Traveling to Rocky Ford, Meeker’s defense was near perfect against the ground game which forced the Meloneer quarterback to throw 45 passes. Meanwhile, Cook dished out touchdown passes to Nieslanik,

Garcia and two to Lugenbeel as the Cowboys enjoyed a big semifinal victory, 33-0 to set the stage for the State AA title against Denver Sheridan.

Said the Denver Post in their article hyping the contest, Meeker’s offense in 11 games had produced 318 points, 2,193 yards on the ground and 1,604 through the air all while giving up only 66 points. “The defensive unit of the Cowboys is headed by halfback Jim McKean, a 150 lb. senior who is either breaking opposing runners or his own records. McKean participated in 32 tackles against Fruita, breaking the record he set last year of 24 in a game.” Meanwhile, Sheridan came in undefeated with an equally impressive 11-0 record which produced 377 points while giving up just 69.

Despite giving up considerable size to the Ram line which averaged 192 lbs., Meeker’s Joe Merriam, Mike Brubaker, Jerry Oldland, Mike Brubaker, Ray Bicknell, Keith Watson and Mike McGruder managed to hold up the front line which saw Meeker battle to a 0-0 first quarter tie. “What I remember,” said Cook, who was knocked out of the game early along with linebackers McKean and Harp, “was that we had them backed up to their 30 and they quick kicked downwind on third down for 70 yards with the ball rolling dead at the one. Sheridan then blocked two punts which produced points and then I guess I started flipping touchdowns to the other team and it was all over,” he said of the 41-6 loss. “All I know is that Steve (Nieslanik) is still mad at me as he had to go in and quarterback that last game after hardly taking a snap all year.”

Fifty years later, Meeker is still in search of its first state football title.

By Jim Cook | Special to the Herald Times