There are many ingredients to a great sports rivalry.
First, something has to be at stake. The pride of winning carries some weight, but there has to be an extra motivation. A perfect example are the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, two teams from opposite coasts whose ongoing rivalry was borne solely out of both teams’ excellence. They’ve faced off 12 times for NBA titles and both boast deep Hall of Fame rosters. Even as both have hit lean times in recent years, their respective fan bases are proud to argue about not just who’s better, but who’s the best of all time.
Proximity is a helpful ingredient, though not necessary. If two teams are based near each other — say, the same county — then a win is more than just a “W” in the sports pages. It’s a merit of accomplishment a fan can bring up over (and over) in mixed company, and people who live in the area are often forced to pick a side. When Duke and North Carolina meet up on the basketball court each season, the drama is ramped up not just because both are often on the short list of possible NCAA champions, but because their campuses are only about 10 miles apart.
A great rivalry also requires repetition and history. You can declare a rivalry is born when a new sports team joins the area code of another team, but it takes a few great individual matchups, an engaged fan base and some stories to pass along.
And for a rivalry to be truly great, there must be some parity. While many big brother, little brother rivalries exist in the sports world, none are as compelling as the clashes between two teams that defy the odds and expectations each time out, and can bring even non-sports fans into the fray.
By these standards, the Hermiston/Pendleton football rivalry has become a great one in recent years. There have been surprises and upsets, twists and turns, close games and blow outs as the teams have traded home fields and bragging rights. Hermiston fans are well aware of the decades of frustration through most of the 20th century, as the Bulldogs could never quite measure up with the Buckaroos, but that era certainly made the first few Hermiston wins even sweeter.
So it’s a shame that we’re going to have to close the book on this rivalry after Friday. The reasons are clear and understandable — the schools are no longer really in the same size bracket, and Hermiston is a better fit with the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla than Bend and East Portland. But it’s still hard to picture a football season when the Bucks and Bulldogs don’t face off.
We will still see our cross-county friends (foes?) in other athletic arenas as the rivalry will continue to play out in non-league action. But we won’t see, at least in the next four years, a do-or-die game where both teams are playing for their postseason lives. Or where one team is playing for the playoffs, and the other can squelch its chances. We won’t have the reason to pack up the bus and travel to Pendleton on a cold October night, or welcome their buses to Kennison Field and get together to cheer on our team.
Maybe there’s a natural rival for Hermiston somewhere in the Tri-Cities, a team left out of other long-running legacies. Or maybe Walla Walla, another outlier with no immediately obvious nearby opponent, will fill the role. Even as the level of competition rises on the whole, we hope there’s a connection to be made with a single team that we can watch grow for years to come.
But for now we’ve got our purple on and our banners ready for one more trip to Round-Up Stadium. We hope it’s one for the ages.
Daniel Wattenburger is the interim editor for the Hermiston Herald, the managing editor of the East Oregonian and a former sportswriter for both publications.