Time to raise a banner for the 1996 Bulldogs

Time to raise a banner for the 1996 Bulldogs

Everyone’s new favorite major college football team should be the Central Florida Knights.

While the rest of the country went along with the rigged plan to give Alabama a phony national championship trophy, the Knights did their own thing.

They declared themselves champions.

Central Florida beat Auburn 34-27 in the Peach Bowl to finish the season as the only undefeated team in the country. But they weren’t invited to the college football “playoffs,” which includes all of four teams.

Auburn, by the way, beat Alabama 26-14 a little more than a month earlier, but for some reason that game didn’t count.

Central Florida finished No. 6 in the ranking, and the Knights received just six of the 63 first-place votes in the AP Top 25 Poll. The other 57 rubes voted for Alabama, the paper champion.

The Knights called Bravo Sierra on the crooked system and raised their own championship banners.

Banners that read “National Champions — The Only 2017 Undefeated Champion” can be seen around the campus. The Knights will have a permanent national champion banner hanging at their stadium.

You can buy Central Florida national championship merchandise, and the coaches received national championship bonuses. They even had a national championship parade.

Since college football’s system to define a national champion is unfair and borderline corrupt, the Knights should be celebrated for what they did during and after the 2017 season.

Where they the best team? Probably not. But we’ll never know because of a rigged system designed to make ensure an SEC team is called the champion.

Butte High needs to follow the Knights and add a 1996 Class AA State Softball Championship banner to its collection of titles inside the Ross J. Richardson Memorial Gymnasium.

The Bulldogs of 22 years ago were not robbed by the system. They got the shaft from something nobody can control, Mother Nature.

Butte High went to Billings as a favorite to win the state championship at Stewart Park. But the rain wouldn’t let up, and the Class AA and Class A State tournaments were completely washed out.

The Montana Standard ran a Sunday headline that read “State softball trophies stay in the box.”

Defending state champion Butte High won 15 of 19 games in 1996, and the Bulldogs went undefeated in Western AA play as they looked for their third title in school history. Butte High also won in 1992, the second year of the program’s existence.

Billings West was the Eastern AA champion, and the Golden Bears, too, felt 1996 was their year.

Jeni Hope was a sophomore on that 1996 Butte High team.

“I remember all of us in the hotel room, and we were crying,” she said. “Would we have won? Who knows. But damn we wanted to play so bad.”

At the time, there was no backup plan for the weather. If that happens now, they will move the tournament. Three years later, rain forced he Class A State tournament from Butte to Anaconda, where Butte Central completed an undefeated season on fields built to handle water.

In the week following the 1996 washout, Bruce Sayler wrote a column in the Standard calling for such a backup plan. After taking a nice little shot at a Billings Gazette writer who wrote that Butte should never host a state track meet again because of cold weather in 1984, he quoted Butte High head coach Jim Hope.

“We didn’t play all season just to be an asterisk in the book,” Hope said. “There’s no closure. The season never ended.

“It was a tough (Saturday) morning when I had to tell the girls. Especially our seniors. They’d made a pact when they were freshman that they were going to win the state championship this year. Now they won’t get the chance. There were a lot of tears. A lot of tears.”

Billings West coach Ed Kriscovich was equally devasted.

“My feeling is that I’m sorry for the kids,” Kriskovich told John Letasky of the Gazette. “We’ve got five seniors who have worked hard, and the chance to win a state championship has been taken away from them by natural circumstances.”

Chances to win the state title do not come along very often. It wasn’t until 15 years later that the Bulldogs won their third title with that magical 2011 run in Billings.

The Montana High School Association did the best it could to handle a rainy situation in Billings.

The possibility of rescheduling the tournament was discussed, but ultimately the MHSA decided not to box the trophies after all.

Butte High and West were to receive first-place trophies because they won their divisional titles. Missoula Big Sky and Great Falls Russell took second-place trophies, and Missoula Hellgate and Billings Senior received third-place trophies.

Whether it was said or not, Butte High took that to mean they were co-champions of the state.

If you look at the list of past champions on the MHSA website, however, the year 1996 has no champion for Class AA or Class A. Every other year since softball became an MHSA sport in 1986 has a champ.

The paper on the Memorial Day following the rain listed 10 Butte High players who received post-season awards.

That list included five All-State players. The were junior pitcher Jori Peterson and her 12-0 record, senior second baseman Shannon Crowley and her .930 fielding percentage, junior shortstop Heidi McCarthy and her .323 average, senior center fielder Beth Toivonen and her .438 average, and right fielder Jeni Hope and her .471 average.

Seniors Mandi Ueland, Amanda Evans and Chrissy Leathers, junior Kristen Uggetti and sophomore Keli Renz also received all-conference awards.

Those awards are nice, but they seemed hollow following the lost state tournament.

All these years later, it is time to celebrate those Bulldogs by recognizing the state title they thought was there. What those players deserve now is that banner.

Let Billings West raise a banner, too. If the NCAA can have co-champions, so can Montana high school softball.

USC and LSU shared the title in 2003. NCAA teams shared championships three times in the 1990s.

The 1996 players deserve closure, and there is no better closer than a banner-raising ceremony.

Just as the Central Florida Knights called out the NCAA and told the world that they were the true champions of college football, the Bulldogs could thumb their nose at Mother Nature and declare themselves co-champions once and for all.

Universal Athletic could make up some “1996 State Championship” merchandise.

They could sell it at the parade.

— Bill Foley, who loves a parade, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at foley@buttesports.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.

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