ODESSA — It was the early 1990s and Jeff Nelson was a young high school football coach at Lacrosse-Washtucna, an 8-man football program made up of two farm communities about 25 miles apart with a combined population of less than 500.
Nelson recalls making the drive into Odessa and parking himself in the press box to scout the Odessa Tigers football team — at that time headlined by running back Dallas Deife and linebacker Traig Weishaar — in hopes of learning a thing or two.
Odessa, a small farming community tucked in a topographical region known as the Channelled Scablands of Eastern Washington, had won the state title in 1989 and was a budding 8-man power under head coach Myron Kramer. Beyond the individual talent, Nelson studied on-field schemes, and the ways in which Kramer ran his program.
Though they were opponents, Nelson built a respect for Odessa. He wanted to bring a program to that level, so he patterned Lacrosse-Washtucna after them.
“I thought ‘boy, it’d be great to be here one day,’ ” Nelson said.
Nearly 30 years later, Nelson has created his second Washington high school 8-man dynasty at Odessa, built on similar old-school components that he admired about the program and town in the early 90s.
And now, they’re on the precipice of program history.
His roster of 21 players boasts talent, experience and multi-generation Odessa football lineage, including the sons of several of those same players Nelson used to scout in the early 90s. Deife and Weishaar make up the “chain gang,” the dads who hold the first down chains on the sidelines of home games.
It’s there they’ve had a front row seat to a historical season, not just in Odessa, but also in 8-man football across the state.
This year’s Tigers are one game away from repeating as state champion, something Odessa football has never before seen heading into Saturday’s 1B state championship game against Naselle at noon at Mount Tahoma High School.
For several players, it would also mean surpassing the number of state titles their fathers won.
“It probably will be” a source of banter, Deife, whose son Daeton Deife wears his dad’s No. 33, said. “But it’s something to be proud of. I’m hoping it’s not just two. I’m hoping it’s three, four.”
Pilot Weishaar is a fifth generation Odessa resident and can’t remember the exact age when he started playing football. But he was young.
Several local parents helped make flag football available to early elementary school-aged kids, and Weishaar played it until he was allowed to strap on pads and play tackle football in third grade.
Like many families in Odessa, football was a constant in Weishaar’s upbringing. His father Traig Weishaar was a part of Odessa’s 1993 state championship, and would tell Pilot stories about those days throughout his childhood.
Deife, also a member of the 1993 team, did the same.
“It’s just something you do in Odessa,” sophomore Daeton Deife said.
After Dallas Deife graduated from Odessa, he went on to play two seasons at Eastern Washington University, left to get a degree in agricultural science at a community college and returned to Odessa to begin life as a second generation farmer, eventually buying land 16 miles from his parents. There was never a question on whether or not he would return.
He began driving a combine at age 12 and worked full time on the farm throughout his adolescence. He’s raised his children in a similar way.
Dallas Deife cherishes knowing pretty much everyone in the town, and like the town of Odessa’s official website, boasts how safe it is to raise children. He cites the support from community, parents and the school of the small town that makes it one “big happy family.”
Many parents see value in having a football team that doesn’t have out-of-area transfers, and the stability of just three head coaches in nearly 40 years.
Plus, there’s tradition, whether it’s the town-wide activity of attending a Friday night football game (or driving to a neighboring town for a road game), or a school-wide sendoff for a team headed to compete at state, featuring the band and entire student body gathering in the school’s common area to create a tunnel for the players.
“I just think it’s important, these small communities, everybody thinks ‘oh, you live in the middle of nowhere, small town Odessa,’ ” Deife said. “It’s a pretty special place to raise a family. Really is.
“I wouldn’t raise my family anywhere else.”
Traig Weishaar is a farmer who runs irrigation equipment and bales hay, which requires working through nights and early mornings. He grew up a fifth generation Odessa resident on a cereal grain wheat farm. His son Pilot is at least a third generation Odessa football player.
Pilot began working on the farm full-time at a young age, something his father says builds work ethic and strength — both traits that translate onto the football field.
“And it’s tradition, it’s a way of life out here and in farming,” Traig Weishaar said. “Every person that’s available gets put to work. You know, summer time is your work season, it’s just the way it is. I don’t know any farm communities where your kids get off getting out of work.”
Nelson says he sees that work ethic the moment players enter his program as freshmen.
“The kids buy in, the parents buy in and without that it makes things a lot tougher,” Nelson said. “They’ve given them that work ethic and it carries into football. They’re kind of intertwined. The work ethic they get in the summer time and all year from their families, it carries into football.”
Is this Odessa team the best 8-man team in state history?
The Tigers are building a strong case.
Eye-popping blowouts such as the 96-7 win over 3-seed rival Almira/Coulee-Hartline, a team that made the 1B semifinals last season, or the fact that the Tigers’ best players have been subbed out of all but a handful of games by halftime draw into question where this team should be considered among the best 8-man teams the state’s ever seen.
Bill Alexander, former longtime Quincy football coach and athletic director, thinks the Pateros team in 1995 should be in the conversation for best-ever. The Joe Worsham-led Billygoats beat Touchet 76-20 in the 1B state title game that year, and though it was the school’s only state title in that era, the program had lost in the three previous state championships leading up to the win.
Talent? The 1998 Bridgeport team, coached by Alexander, beat Odessa in the state title game 52-0 and featured six players who went on to play in college.
What Nelson’s own Lacrosse-Washtucna teams accomplished just after the turn of the century — 49 straight wins, five state championships in seven seasons — stands unparalleled. It won four consecutive state titles from 2002-2005 by a combined score of 214-46, the most ever by a 1B school and tied with Toledo’s 11-man record from the mid-to-late 1960s.
And they featured a roster makeup uncommon among 8-man powers: they were big, and they were mean.
But what about the back-to-back Garfield-Palouse title teams in the mid 80s? Or the back-to-back Touchet and Inchelium winners at the turn of the century?
What’s not in dispute, is how dominant this Odessa team is. The separation between the team and the rest of the state is cavernous. Odessa has outscored opponents by an average of 45 points per game throughout the season — and that has jumped to 65 points in the postseason.
And the Tigers boast talent in reigning 1B state player of the year Marcus King, a multi-sport standout, backfield mate Josh Clark and quarterback Camden Weber, among a deep roster of contributors.
“And he’s not running scores up,” Alexander said. “His second string is nearly as good as everyone else.”
Alexander has no trouble citing the common denominator between two of the most dominant programs in 8-man history.
“Jeff Nelson is one of the, if not the, best football coach at any level that I have ever been round in my 40-plus years coaching and with the (coaches association),” Alexander said. “He knows how to put a program together. He’s old-school, and he’s been lucky, he’s gone to places where old-school is accepted. Dads are farmers. Moms are making meals. He knows how to get the whole thing going. The whole town is involved. ”
Pilot Weishaar was an eighth grader in the Odessa-Harrington pep band when the team made the state championship game in 2016— its first since 2007.
As a little boy, he’d always wanted to wear the same uniform his father did. Even as he heard his father recount stories of his state title team, Pilot didn’t understand what it took.
That early December day in the Tacoma Dome in 2016 sharpened things into focus. Odessa lost 64-34, its fourth consecutive time getting to that stage and losing.
“We had a really good team that year and we couldn’t get it done; we had a lot of seniors that year,” Weishaar said. “I thought we were going to win, but watching that really made me take it into perspective.”
Two years later, the team knew going into that season how talented it was. They were determined not to squander their chance at a trophy.
“Those kids took notice,” Nelson said. They were like, ‘we want to be like that group.’ They had all the talent. They know you can’t take anything for granted. I figured it might take awhile. It definitely happened a little quicker than I thought it was going to.”
Last year, Odessa scored a state championship record 40 points in the first quarter (Odessa was on the losing end of the previous record, 38, in 1988 against Alexander’s Harrington) on its way to a 63-12 win over area rival Almira/Coulee-Hartline.
It was the town’s first state championship in 25 years.
To Joel Hardung, a 1998 graduate who was on the runner-up team in 1996, watching his son be a part of this run is special. But that hasn’t stopped the banter between him and his son over who has more state titles.
“First thing he did to me last year when he come running off the field is he’s like, ‘I gotcha now,’ because he got one up on me,” said Hardung. “And I think he’ll probably have a couple more before it’s over, I’m sure. I’m hoping so.”
For other parents, the state title was a relief. And a second in a row? That would be the icing on the cake.
“The monkey’s off his back,” Traig Weishaar said. “(Nelson’s) heard a lot of guff about someone having to bring a title back to town. It’d been 25 years.”