FOND MEMORIES – Jim Frey, coach of the undefeated 1968 La Conner High football team, has enjoyed reading news accounts of that season in recent weeks. He and his wife, Kay, discovered the articles while preparing for a family reunion. – Photo courtesy of Bill Reynolds
While searching for photo albums and scrapbooks prior to a recent family reunion, former Pleasant Ridge residents Jim and Kay Frey came across an unexpected gem. It was a plain, parcel-sized envelope filled with yellowed news clippings. Not just any clippings, mind you. These were from more than a half-century ago, dating to the fall of 1968. That was among the best of times for the Freys, who now reside in Mount Vernon. Then Jim coached football and taught at La Conner High School. That Braves’ team, which went undefeated with one tie in eight games, set the standard for a program that would later produce multiple deep state playoff runs. “It was a special group of players,” says Don Misner, the team’s starting center, who would go on to play college basketball and enjoy a successful high school coaching career of almost 40 years. “It was a great mix of guys, a really talented group,” Misner says. “Everything was upbeat. We all got along. There was just this great chemistry on that team.” Frey, then in his late 20s, was ideally suited to guide the Braves. He designed an offense around quarterback Tom Zimmerman fondly dubbed the “Frey-I” whose scheme relied on distributing the ball to a host of ball carriers and receivers. “We had a lot of depth that season,” recalls Frey. “Statistically, we were well-balanced.” Good thing, too, as Frey had to juggle his lineup to offset injuries to end Pat Maddox, perhaps the team’s fastest player, and Claude Wilbur, Jr., among a trio of go-to backs – Rick Williams and Randy Harris were the others – who lined up behind Zimmerman. No matter who was on the field, good things happened for the Braves. Frey’s charges debuted with a 37-7 trouncing of much larger Mount Vernon High School’s sophomore team. Legendary Skagit Valley Herald sports columnist Royal “Pop” Gunn lauded La Conner’s talent but lamented the fact many fans couldn’t see the Braves play due to their daytime home schedule. “They have no lighted field over there,” Gunn wrote, “and must play all their home games on afternoons.” Between teaching classes and crafting game plans, Frey set to work on developing funding strategies to install lights for nighttime kickoffs. As was the case with his team, which in that pre-playoff era finished the season ranked No. 4 among state ‘B’ title contenders, the light campaign proved successful. Four years later, in 1972, while then serving as La Conner High’s Principal, Frey would play a lead role in ceremonies that dedicated completion of lighted Whittaker Field, still the Braves’ football venue. Despite a home schedule limited to day games, the Braves in 1968 garnered much attention. Frey’s news clips show the team was covered extensively by reporters throughout Skagit and Snohomish counties. The most in-depth coverage was provided by the Puget Sound Mail, La Conner’s newspaper. PSM editor Pat O’Leary provided accounts that listed La Conner starters on both offense and defense, key game stats and decisive plays. La Conner made headlines with a 20-7 comeback win over archrival Coupeville in the season’s second week. In that game, Zimmerman completed two touchdown passes to Doug Wilbur – who like Misner would be recruited to play college basketball – and Williams provided a TD run for La Conner’s third and final score.
La Conner followed with successive 13-6 and 7-6 victories over Chimacum and King’s Garden. Those were intense, physical games. Against Chimacum, which at the time sat atop the State ‘B’ polls, defensive end Randy Brigham and linebacker Ed Shutt recorded double digit tackles. The twin triumphs set up a mid-season pairing with the Snohomish High sophomores, whose varsity team was then a state powerhouse. La Conner would settle for a 13-13 tie in that contest, its lone non-win. At least on paper. “We actually scored the winning touchdown in that game,” Misner insists. “But a referee threw a flag and said that we ran an illegal play. Of course, we thought the call was bogus. That tie might’ve cost us being ranked No. 1 at the end of the season.” The Braves closed with consecutive wins over Darrington, Granite Falls and the Marysville sophomores, finishing with a 7-0-1 mark. After the final game, Frey was praised in an anonymous letter to the Puget Sound Mail. “If anyone deserves a trophy,” the letter writer stressed, “it’s our own Mr. Frey.” The accolades would continue. At a La Conner Rotary Club meeting, Superintendent of Schools Leroy “Butch” Maxwell introduced Frey as the “best coach west of Pullman.” Frey deflected the attention to his players. “It’s been said,” he pointed out, “that good players create good coaches.” Frey was joined at that Rotary session by the team’s co-captains, 6’-3”, 235-pound Dave Hedlin and 5’-11”, 200-pound Wes Otis. Misner credits both with having made his job easier. “I was listed as weighing 166 pounds,” he says. “That was being very generous. I was probably in the 150s, but I didn’t have any trouble because I had those guys on either side of me.” Frey said if there was one indispensable player on the Braves roster, it was Otis. “The only way I’d trade Otis away,” he told Rotarians, “would be if he played on the other team alone and then it would be tough.” Current La Conner High head football coach Peter Voorhees, who has been part of several Braves’ sState playoff entries, is among those impressed with what the 1968 team accomplished. “I’d love to honor those guys,” he told La Conner Weekly News recently. “They’re a big part of a proud tradition and I think it would be great for our players to connect with those alums.” Consider first-year La Conner High Athletic Director Kathy Herrera a fan, too. Earlier this school year she helped coordinate the unveiling of a banner at Landy James Gym honoring the 2018 Lady Braves’ state 2B championship volleyball team. “I would like to do something to honor them,” Herrera said of the ‘68 Braves. “I don’t know if it’ll be a banner, but I’ll try my best.” Still, no matter how that plays out, there’s no doubt 1968 was a banner football season for La Conner.