A look back at Lions of yesteryear
I always enjoy stories related to the history of high school sports in Nevada, and of the many personalities involved. That said, I must stand corrected on one inaccuracy in a story I wrote earlier this summer about former Yerington High School coach and Lyon County school administrator, Tod V. Carlini.
That story reported the Yerington Lions won back-to-back 1A state football championships under coach Carlini in 1953-54 and did not win again until 1973. In fact, the Lions won two state titles under Hall of Fame coach Mike Lommori during that time period — 1964 in the 1A division and 1969 in the 2A division.
There are many folks who will tell you that undefeated ’64 squad was truly something special, too. Just ask former Douglas High coach Mike Rippee, who played on the ’69 Yerington team while his older brother, Tom Rippee, played on the ’64 team.
“I truly believe they could have played anybody in the state that year and had a good shot at winning … and I’ve heard that from other people,” said Rippee, who served as head coach at Douglas from 1985-2011. “You never know because they didn’t get to play anybody else, but they just dominated the competition up here, and then shut out Boulder City, 20-0, in the state championship game up here.”
Lommori, a 1955 Yerington High graduate who played under coach Carlini on the 1953-54 state championship teams, pointed out that the Lions’ first-team defense only gave up seven points all season (against AA Fallon). One of the standouts on that defense was Rick Booth, who went on to become a longtime coach at Douglas.
“The ‘64 team was an outstanding team … strong, big, fast,” noted Lommori, who still lives in Yerington. “Everyone on our defensive line was over 200 pounds, which was good size at that time, and they were all quick.”
The Lions were tested in a 14-7 win against Fallon, otherwise, coach Lommori said their toughest game from any Class A opponent came against Pershing County, which was then coached by George Graham (who later become a longtime school administrator in Douglas County).
“They did nothing fancy except hit you and get after it,” Rippee said of the ‘64 Lions. “They were very physical and very dominating.”
Lommori had taken over as head coach at Yerington in 1963 and guided the Lions to the state championship game, which they lost to an undefeated Boulder City squad and its own Hall of Fame coach, Kenneth Andree.
Rippee’s older brothers, Patrick and Tom, played together for the Lions in ’63. Tom returned a year later for his memorable championship season, although he missed nearly half the season due to a broken wrist. Tom Rippee’s replacement during that stretch was junior Rick Booth, a standout on defense who went on to become a longtime coach at Douglas.
“They put on a cast up to here (near the elbow), but he said if they made it to state, he was going to play,” Mike Rippee said. “The night before the game, he went to Dr. Mary Fulstone, and Tom by that time had whittled the cast down to here (a few inches above the wrist). He expected to have the cast taken off, well, she looked at it and said, ‘It’s not completely healed.’ I remember, she put a cast back up to here (back near the elbow).
“Tom was so upset, my mom called the school and she signed a release paper that said we would not hold anybody responsible; my dad took a hack saw, cut the cast off, then put a leather brace on and taped over the leather. He did play the next day … he had over 100 yards and three touchdowns … and he was the kicker, too.”
Rippee couldn’t hold back a good laugh at that point. You see, Tom had been cleared to play only as a kicker.
Dr. Fulstone, who retired from her medical practice at age 91 (she was the longest practicing physician in the state of Nevada), did have a question the next week when she saw Mrs. Rippee.
“Dr. Fulstone’s office was right next to the school … so when she saw mom, said, ‘There must have been a lot of kicking in that game because I heard Tom’s name on the loudspeaker a lot,” Rippee added with a wide grin.
Tom Rippee went on to play collegiately at Taft College in Southern California and then at BYU and later coached baseball (three straight titles 1984-86) and football at Bishop Manogue High. He taught 18 years at Carson Middle School and coached at Carson High before he passed away on Sept. 30, 2006.
“Tom was tough,” Mike Rippee said of his brother. “His second year he went back to fullback and they ended up No. 2 in the nation. The funny thing about it, when they came out with an all-California junior college team, Tom figured he would have a good shot at being first-team … Taft being No. 2 in the nation, he’d had a great year and was MVP of that Taft team. When they came out with the team, there was a guy in front of him from San Francisco City College, and he says, ‘Who is this O.J. Simpson?’ After a few years, Tom said, ‘Yeah, I understand why he was No. 1.’”
In 1969, Yerington defeated Elko 38-22 to end the regular season and clinch the medium schools state championship. The Lions rallied from a 22-8 halftime deficit to win that game. Coach Lommori recalled that another close contest that season was their 26-20 win over Manogue in a game decided on a late touchdown pass from quarterback Frank Peeples to David Galantuomini.
Peeples wound up as 2A co-Player of the Year with Manogue’s Pete Barbieri during that championship season. Interestingly enough, the 1969 Manogue team was coached by future University of Nevada legend Chris Ault with an offensive line that included Ray Hagar, who served as sports editor for The Record-Courier in the 1970s, and Tim Jaureguito, who later coached at South Tahoe and Manogue (and was principal at Manogue).
“We lost our quarterback the second week of the season with a ruptured spleen, so we moved Frank Peeples from running back to quarterback,” Lommori recalled.
“Frank Peeples was our leader,” added Rippee, who played as a sophomore wingback for the Lions and would go on to a successful career as a running back for the Nevada Wolf Pack. “He was one of the best athletes to come out of Yerington.”
The old Northern AA conference was highly competitive top to bottom in those days, Lommori added.
“You had Elko, Fallon, Yerington, Douglas, White Pine and Hawthorne was real tough to beat,” he said. “Tony Klenakis (Fallon) was the one who said it was the most competitive league around. The coaches were great and you had great athletes.
“We had a really good rivalry with Douglas at the time. (Coach Bill) Coverley was a great guy … you always knew his teams would play hard and never give up.”
Some pretty talented athletes have come out of Yerington during that era — Mike Weeks and Wes Herbst went on to become a world class track and field athletes in the shot put and decathlon respectively, as well as Phil Righetti, an offensive tackle who played for Nebraska‘s 13-0 and national championship team of 1971 (and for the Cornhuskers’ 9-2-1 team of 1972). And then there was Phil Estep, regarded as one of the greatest sprinters to ever come out of Nevada (9.6 for 100 yards and 48.8 in the 440).
“He went to Arizona State on a track scholarship, but he could have played football. He was 6-3, about 190, and boy, could he hit,” Rippee said.
Coach Lommori added: “Phil played tight end and defensive back and he was so fast, if the ball got in his hand no one could catch him.”
A good case could be made to consider the former Lions star for induction into the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA) Hall of Fame.
“He is one of the best athletes to come out of Nevada,” Rippee said. “I mean, those times could compare with anybody you see today; and he ran those times on dirt tracks. To watch him run, with the power and strength he had, it was something to behold.”
Lommori, whose family migrated from Italy to the Mason Valley in the early 1920s, has nothing but good memories in looking back on his career as an educator. He retired as football coach in 1979 and worked in education until 1989.
“I had a great time and I had really great kids,” he said. “I can’t even try to name them because I’d leave somebody out I have really good memories and absolutely no regrets about coaching. Even the bad years when we didn’t win as much, those were kids who had a tremendous amount of character.”