On the sleeve of Gene Pryor’s black-and-maroon letterman jacket, there is an empty space.
Pryor, a senior and three-year starter on the Mt. Whitney football team, is hoping to fill that void with a patch.
The item he wishes to have stitched on to his jacket is a distinct and unique Cowhide logo.
Every year, each player on the winning team in the Cowhide receives an individual patch, but in the last two tries, Mt. Whitney has came away empty. The Pioneers have lost back-to-back Cowhide games, falling 35-13 in 2013 and losing 41-14 last year.
There is not one football player on the Pioneers campus that has experienced the sweetness of a Cowhide victory. Redwood leads the all-time series 34-25-1.
“It would mean the world,” Pryor said of bringing back the ‘Hide. “It would make my senior year even better. It’s the biggest game of the year. There’s a lot of hype that goes into it. The excitement. The rallies. And the morning of the game. It’s the best.”
Although those two losses may still linger for Pryor and coach Marty Martin, they see Friday night’s clash for the 61st annual Cowhide at Giant Chevrolet-Cadillac Mineral King Bowl as an opportunity to right the ship.
For the first time since 2011, the Pioneers (4-5, 2-3) enter the Cowhide with a better overall record than the Rangers (2-7, 2-3).
“It’s a huge event,” Martin said. “Until somebody’s been in it they don’t quite understand what it means to be involved in the game and to the community, and everything that goes with it.”
Since opening its grueling West Yosemite League schedule with a solid 2-0 start, Mt. Whitney has lost three straight. The Pioneers beat El Diamante 22-14 in their WYL opener and defeated Hanford West 31-21 after their bye week.
A 49-0 loss to Lemoore, the defending WYL champion, set off a string of losses to Hanford (35-21) and Golden West (40-35).
“If we go out there and do what we need to do like execute our plays, I think we can definitely get over that hump,” said Pryor, a standout lineman who is receiving interest from four-year universities like Colorado State, Idaho, San Diego State, Fresno State, UTEP and Nevada.
With a Cowhide victory, Mt. Whitney will qualify for the Central Section Division III postseason. The Pioneers haven’t made an appearance in the postseason since 2012, and have not won a playoff game since a 59-28 win over Golden Valley in 2011.
“That’s our hope,” Martin said. “We’ve been close the past couple of weeks. We’ve been improving. Offensively, we’ve put a lot more numbers on the board than we have in a while. I think if we just put everything together and play all four quarters, we can be in pretty good shape.”
For Redwood, it’s a different story. The Rangers opened the 2015 campaign with five straight losses, but have steadily improved, winning two of the past four.
Redwood coach Shaun Ball, like Martin, is 2-2 in the Cowhide game. Both coaches took over for their respective programs in 2011.
“I never truly appreciated it until I got here,” Ball said of the Cowhide. “I knew it was a big deal, but until you actually experience it, you never understand how big it is.”
In Ball’s two Cowhide victories (2013, 2014), the Rangers’ average margin of victory is 24.5 points.
“It’s pretty special,” Ball said. “It’s a lot more special for the student body and the alumni. It can’t be explained honestly.”
Redwood routed Hanford West 45-22 in its latest victory. In that game, junior safety Cooper Allen set a school record by intercepting four passes. Allen also scored on a fake punt.
“It was an important win for us,” Ball said. “We needed to get back in a winning groove, so hopefully we can build off of it, but this game stands on its own.”
Redwood team captain Justin Williams can become the only player on the squad this year to go three-for-three in the Cowhide. The senior running back won the Cowhide as a sophomore and junior.
“It was a great experience because my first year on varsity, we didn’t have the ‘Hide,” Williams said. “Then we got it back my sophomore year. To win it again last year was really cool to have it two years in a row. I just hope we can get a third one this year.”
Williams registered his first Cowhide touchdown last season, scoring on a 19-yard pass.
“It’s a different experience playing in the Cowhide because of all the emotions,” Williams said. “The game has so much history. It’s just a great game to play in.”
In the past, the Cowhide has typically attracted more than 10,000 fans, which brings a completely different ambiance and atmosphere to a high school football game.
“You can never ever, ever compare anything to it,” Ball said of the Cowhide crowd. “I’ve been lucky enough to coach in a semifinal and a Valley championship game, and nothing compares. The fact that you can stand at the corner of one campus and look and see the other campus, that pretty much has something to do with it. The proximity without a doubt helps, and the tradition too, obviously.”
How to attend
The Cowhide Game between Mt. Whitney (4-5, 2-3) and Redwood (2-7, 2-3) is Friday night at Giant Chevrolet-Cadillac Mineral King Bowl. Game time is 7 p.m.