WALLA WALLA - When DeSales entertains Waitsburg-Prescott Friday night at Ty Baffney Field, it will be a renewal of the Southeast 2B-11 League's most heated football rivalry.
Currently speaking, that is.
And it's a rivalry that leans in Waitsburg-Prescott's favor.
In the last two campaigns, W-P has defeated DeSales three times - 35-28 during a regular-season game in 2009 and 27-14 in last year's regular-season tilt and 54-13 in a rematch in the state quarterfinals.
The Irish did get the best of Waitsburg-Prescott 22-14 in a 2009 mini-playoff game to determine seeding into the state playoffs. But it was of little consequences when both teams were summarily dismissed from the playoffs by Gridiron Classic-bound Colfax.
Colfax proved to be W-P's nemesis again in last year's semifinals as the Bulldogs prevailed 14-7 to reach the Class B-11 state championship game for a second straight year.
But with senior Zack Bartlow now in his third year as the team's starting quarterback and surrounded by a stable of talented teammates, Waitsburg-Prescott enters Friday night's game at DeSales undefeated (4-0) and prohibitive favorites to win the SEB-11 title for a second straight year.
"You would have to say right now that they are dominant in Southeast Washington at the Class 2B level," third-year Irish coach Pat Graham said of Waitsburg-Prescott. "They are right there at the top in nearly every sport. They have worked hard to develop strong athletic programs, they have put a lot of time and energy into those programs' success and it is really paying off."
Jeff Bartlow, W-P's head football coach and the quarterback's father, agrees. Sort of.
"We've been playing really tough, and we expect a lot out of our kids," Bartlow said. "We have the confidence right now.
"These last three years have been good years in establishing ourselves and getting ourselves in position to be a good program. It has been a good ride in that way."
But the W-P coach maintains a healthy respect for DeSales and anticipates a difficult battle Friday night.
"We expect a great game, a very close game," Bartlow said. "It's going to take four quarters of good football for both teams.
"DeSales has such a great program, great coaches and a lot of coaches. The alumni is so strong there. It's a program that goes down to the middle school and beyond. They have a culture of winning that we are trying to establish here."
History certainly bears that out.
Year after year, decade after decade, different schools have fought for Class B-11 football supremacy in this corner of the state. With very few exceptions, DeSales has played a part in those battles.
During Dave Curtis' 10-year coaching tenure that ended in 1986 when he moved on to Clarkston, the Irish qualified for thew postseason playoffs seven times and played for their first state championship in 1985, losing to Concrete 42-21 in the Kingdome in Seattle.
In the ensuing years, under the leadership of several head coaches, DeSales has been challenged by different rivals at different times.
When Kim Cox replaced Curtis in 1987 and ran the Irish program for the next six years, and during John Graham's two-year coaching stint that followed, Dayton was more often than not DeSales' chief rival. The Bulldogs, under Dave Spray's coaching leadership, won three league titles during those eight years and the school's only state championship in 1994 before moving up to Class 1A for several years.
During that same time period, DeSales was league champion four times and claimed its first state football title in 1991 with a 46-16 victory over Rainier. That team was quarterbacked by Pat Graham.
"During my years as a player, Dayton was always our big rival," Graham recalled. "They had things really going. We always seemed to have a group of kids, middle school and in high school, football or basketball, it didn't matter, you knew it was going to be a big game and everyone got excited to play Dayton.
"They are going through some tough situations right now, which is unfortunate because they do have a strong history of great athletic programs."
When John Graham, no relation to the former QB, departed following the 1994 season, Cox began his second stint as the Irish head coach. After an unforgettable 1995 season in which Tekoa-Oakesdale, Garfield-Palouse and Asotin filled the top three spots in the league standings, DeSales won back-to-back league titles under Cox and the school's second state championship in 1997.
And by then, Waitsburg had emerged as DeSales' No. 1 rival, making it as far as the state semifinals in 1997.
Pat Graham, fresh out of college, two years at WWCC and two at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., returned home and took the Irish coaching reins in 1998. Graham took DeSales to its second straight state championship that fall but departed after one season for a big-school job in Redmond, Wash.
That dropped the job back into Cox's capable hands, and he directed DeSales to a third straight state championship in 1999. And by then, Asotin was making inroads as the Irish's chief challenger, finishing second in the league in 1999 and sharing second with Waitsburg and Pomeroy, yet another challenger, in 2000.
From 2000 to the present, the DeSales head coaching job has been somewhat like a game of musical chairs.
* Cox stepped aside after the 1999 state title and Mike Spiess took charge for three seasons. DeSales reached the state finals under Spiess in 2001 but lost to Willapa Valley 27-20.
* Cox, DeSales' longtime and highly successful baseball coach, replaced Spiess in 2003, his fourth stint as head football coach. He led the Irish to three consecutive Gridiron Classics, but they lost them all, twice to Reardan and once to Lind-Ritzville.
* Spiess was back in charge in 2006 and held the job for three seasons before Pat Graham returned for his second go-around in 2009. DeSales won its fifth and, to date, last state championship in 2007 under Spiess.
Throughout the decade, DeSales also won six league championships outright and shared the title with Pomeroy and Waitsburg in 2002 and with Asotin and Waitsbsurg-Prescott in 2009.
* Waitsburg, after narrowly losing to DeSales during the regular season, holds the distinction of snapping the Irish's 33-game winning streak with a 15-6 victory in the 2000 quarterfinals.
* Pomeroy, after sharing the league championship in 2002, outlasted the Irish in the playoffs before losing to Reardan in the state semifinals.
* And Asotin unseated DeSales as league champion in 2006 and 2008 and reached the Gridiron Classic both times. The Panthers delivered the school's only state championship with a 28-10 victory over LaSalle in 2006.
Now it's Waitsburg-Prescott's turn again. After sharing the league championship with DeSales and Asotin in 2009, W-P won the title outright in 2010, made it as far as the state semifinals and is off to another fast start this season.
Football being the numbers game that it is, there are those who suggest that W-P's recent success is directly related to the athletic combine that brings together athletes from Waitsburg and a pair of former 8-man programs, Prescott and Jubilee Christian Academy. But Pat Graham, for one, isn't buying it.
"I don't put much stock into numbers," Graham said. "What (W-P) has built is an atmosphere and an environment that really challenges kids and pushes them to be successful. That's the determining factor. When you have success, then kids want to turn out and you have the numbers to compete."
Graham ought to know. He has been witness to that very formula as a player and a coach at DeSales for close to two decades.
And the Irish tradition is not lost on Bartlow.
"I have so much respect for DeSales," the W-P coach said. "They are a great model, a disciplined program. When we can play with them and beat them, that is a good measuring stick for us."