West Valley head coach Greg Grandell (second from right) hugs the Wacker family (from left) Christine, Eric and Ashtin after presenting them with a Northern Section Division III football championship ring in honor of their late son Tyson, who died in October following a car accident. (Photo by T.J. Holmes/Shasta County Sports)
COTTONWOOD – West Valley High’s football team took on a few different nicknames and identities during the 2018 season.
A dominant defense. An offense capable of breaking the scoreboard. A relentless pursuit to mow down anyone standing in their way of a victory.
But the one that mattered to them was what they had engraved on the bottom of their Northern Section Division III championship rings: “Promise Keepers.” And on Wednesday night on the West Valley campus, the Eagles were able to complete a pact they made in October following the loss of teammate Tyson Wacker, who died from injuries suffered from a car crash – deliver a ring to his family.
“We promised the Wacker family we were going to win the section title for their son,” said West Valley senior captain Nathaniel Zambrana. “The most meaningful thing for us to put on the rings. (A) ferocious defense, all these things mean a lot, but ‘promise keepers’ really touched home for us.”
The Wackers – parents Eric and Christine along with younger son Ashtin, who was moved up to varsity to wear his brother’s No. 8 during the CIF NorCal D-5AA championship game against Rio Linda – first held the ring, then each other, and worked their way around to Tyson’s teammates and coaches.
“First thing when I look at pictures is how proud Tyson would have been,” Eric said. “Knowing my son, how proud he would have been of his accomplishments and those of his teammates, knowing this is what he worked they worked for. It makes me sad to know he’s not here to share this moment.
“I know he’s looking down on us. I know he knows he’s a champion. It hurts me more to not see the joy on his face in this moment and I think that’s what I miss the most.”
West Valley’s historic season took shape well before its mid-season tragedy, though. With speed, experience, senior leadership and star power, it was evident the Eagles were on track for an unprecedented season for the program.
“Straight into camp, we knew we were gelling, we were clicking,” said senior captain and eventual Northern Athletic League Defensive MVP Devin Low, who is headed to Rocky Mountain College to play football. “We were like ‘let’s get it done this year.’ We had that mentality from the start. We had a goal in mind and that’s what we were going to get to.”
As the season went on, West Valley definitely experienced the “peaks and valleys” senior captain Bailey Sulzer frequently about. West Valley blanked Foothill in the opener, was humbled the following week in a loss to Enterprise before cruising past opponents into its Oct. 19 game against Corning riding high.
That mid-October hurdle, though, was the toughest challenge of all.
“Football was secondary,” Grandell said. “We decided to play and they decided to play for him. It was a real focus. It wasn’t about us, it wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about the school necessarily. It was about that family.”
West Valley was purposefully penalized for 10 players on the field on the game’s opening play to honor Wacker, who was in a medically induced coma at the time. He died four days later and the Eagles’ driving force changed gears.
The rallying cry of “Play for 8, Live for Tyson” from October culminated in a cold December night when the Eagles edged Sutter 7-0 to earn the section title. To finally hand over the ring to the Wacker family was closing a chapter on not only a historic season but the fulfillment of carrying out a promise.
“The thing that made this team great was the unity, they were galvanized by Tyson,” Grandell said. “No question the loss of a friend and a player certainly brought us together.
“He’s still with us and that’s a big part of today. It’s very exciting and very emotional because of that. We’ll never forget him.”