Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports editors Ray Brewer and Case Keefer focus on the big wins from Chaparral, Desert Oasis and Moapa Valley last week before running down this week's high school football games.
This playoff run helped me fall in love with high school football. And with being a Chaparral Cowboy.
I didn’t miss a snap during my freshman year in 1990 as our beloved orange and black advanced to the state championship game. From the spirit assemblies, cups of hot chocolate during those cold November games and making new friends because we shared a passion for our school, Friday nights rooting for the Cowboys quickly became a way of life.
It still is today, even though my profession of covering high school sports requires being objective.
I remember the 52-yard field goal to beat Clark that made Nick “The Kick” Garritano a legend in our east Las Vegas neighborhood. And there was Mark Jackson’s long touchdown run early in the state championship game against McQueen that sent us into a frenzy because we thought the championship was ours.
But we didn’t score the rest of the day and lost in lopsided fashion. The Cowboys haven’t been back and, unfortunately, not just to the state title game. The program gradually became one of the state’s worst, struggling to field competitive teams as the economics of the neighborhood declined.
This season has been different. The Cowboys, surprisingly and to the delight of us alumni who have eagerly followed their progress on social media, are still playing. Saturday, they face another seemingly impossible challenge in the Division I-A state semifinals against host Churchill County of Fallon in a game nobody, except for maybe the players, expected Chaparral to be part of.
When the Cowboys beat Mojave two weeks ago, it was their first playoff win since the 1990s, and possibly since that memorable season my freshman year. It had been so long since they advanced in the postseason, school officials weren’t certain when they last won. Seriously.
Here’s all you need to know about the semifinal game: In addition to battling a Churchill County (10-1) squad that’s given up just 90 points, they’ll have to manage the travel of a long bus ride and a night in a hotel, and players will likely play in snow for the first time. Alumni raised $5,000 in less than a day for cold weather gear this week because the players had none, nor the resources to buy them.
But winning won’t be impossible. They, after all, weren’t supposed to win last week.
The Cowboys trailed Faith Lutheran, who entered on a nine-game winning streak, is the 2013 state champion and has more resources than Chaparral could ever imagine, by two touchdowns in the first half and appeared to be minutes away from turning in their shoulder pads. But they forced a few turnovers, got some fortunate bounces and somehow rallied.
They scored in the final seconds on a fourth-down play, where an incomplete pass would have been the end of the season. Chaparral quarterback Andrew Solis was 11 of 25 with two interceptions before the last play.
Then, instead of kicking the extra point to tie the game and force overtime, the Cowboys went for the 2-point conversion and victory. Jacob Ford, a 5-foot-7 running back who had just 10 catches all season, caught the ball for the winning points. Simply unbelievable.
“The one thing about this team is we fight until the end,” said Antwain Allen, Chaparral’s senior linebacker.
Coach Paul Nihipali, a laid-back Hawaiian who at age 61 could easily be retired, deserves credit for that fight. He’s been the program’s savior, even when it was struggling to win games, and has a reputation with players for being more than a coach.
He’s that grandfather they never had, someone who takes great interest in their lives, and isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves to make their high school experience worthwhile. He gives them hope, whether it’s winning a football game, or succeeding in life. And hope for most at Chaparral, where some students are considered homeless, is a powerful thing.
The Nihipalis have five children and 21 grandchildren. They also consider the boys on the football team their own, and have created a family environment the kids desperately need. Nihipali will tell you nobody loves the players more than his wife, Jamie, who works the concession stand at home games and constantly feeds players during the week. More important, they listen when someone has a problem.
The family is the link from the Chaparral I grew up with in the 1990s and modern day. Shorty Nihapali, their oldest son, was part of the 1990 team and later played at Virginia Tech. Paul’s been on staff for about 15 years. They’ve lived in the same house near Flamingo and Mountain Vista roads for more than 20 years.
When others left Chap for better schools or moved from the area for a better neighborhood, they stayed. They believe in the children and their families, receiving the ultimate reward of a memorable postseason run this fall.
Nihipali played in college at Southern Utah and has been coaching for so many seasons he’s lost count. His son played in the national championship game with Virginia Tech. Yet, he describes the celebration after beating Faith Lutheran the most meaningful moment of his career.
“This is something this community has waited a long time for,” he said. “A lot of hard work by a lot of people was put into this turnaround. For them, for our kids, this is awesome.”
Much of this week will focus on how Chaparral is a low-income school or how a few years ago test scores were so bad the school was put on turnaround status by the Clark County School District. Under the turnaround, most of the staff was shuffled out and money was pumped into the school to spark change.
Of all the teachers who were replaced, more than 75 percent of the staff, Nihipali was never asked to leave. He is Chaparral football. For the players, such as seniors Richard Nelson, Richard Hernandez and Casey Acosta, a trio of players as athletic and dynamic as any three in the state, he’s more.
He’s the man who believed in them when others forgot. He’s the guy who didn’t care about where they are from or how they got to Chaparral. He’s a man giving former Cowboys scattered across the globe a reason to again cheer in November.
“No matter what happens, we’ll come ready to play,” Nelson said. “Come Saturday, we’ll be on that field ready to battle.”