Once upon a time, Visalia had only one high school: Visalia Union High School (VUHS). That period would end in 1950, and the last Pioneer team to play football under the VUHS banner would be in the fall of 1949. The season was epochal for other reasons, as well. It would be the last of the leatherheads. Next season, modern helmets were standard equipment at Mt Whitney High School, the successor Pioneer team. Also, it would see the end of one platoon football. The starting lineup of the 1949 Pioneers, playing offense and defense, probably played a greater percentage of game time than any team to follow. Most of all, the Pioneers of that year would win the CIF Championship of the San Joaquin Valley for the first time. According to Art Paymiller’s research, a 1934 Visalia team tied Hanford for the county championship, but lost the right to play for the San Joaquin Valley Championship on a coin toss. (See The Press page, Delano, item 3.)
The Pioneers of 1949 enthusiastically anticipated the coming of Cal Rossi to coach their football team. The year earlier had proved a deep disappointment. The 1948 team lost ingloriously to Woodlake 7-0 in the opening game, and went on to lose to East Bakersfield and Delano and to tie Porterville. Players returning in 1949 were determined to do better. Many felt strongly they had it in them to win the championship.
It was Rossi’s first coaching job, and he would bring UCLA’s single wing offense with him to Visalia. Most high school teams of the day, including Visalia, were accustomed to using the T-formation, and this change provoked some controversy. After defeating Exeter 40-7, however, opposition to the single wing diminished. VUHS next defeated Hanford 27-6, Porterville 40-6, Wasco 19-7 and Taft 28-6, before facing East Bakersfield in a game still talked about in Visalia.
The game against East Bakersfield received extra-territorial recognition. The Pioneers were trailing 22-7 at half time. No scoring occurred during the third quarter, but in the fourth the Pioneers scored, and the game stood at 22-13. On the ensuing kickoff, East Bakersfield ran the ball back for a touchdown, to make it 28-13. With time running out, the Pioneers were fighting desperately for a comeback. Some friends and family, listening to the game on radio, turned it off and went to bed thinking Visalia had lost. Then came the onslaught of passing by Fran Weddle and catching by Wayne Wooten to make the score Visalia 31 – East Bakersfield 28 (and recognition for the most touchdowns scored within a limited period by a high school team). East Bakersfield tried to score again, but when Harry Hafer intercepted a pass with less than a minute left to play, it was all over, and Visalia remained undefeated.
After that, nothing would stop the Pioneers, not even Delano, who they defeated 7-6 the next week – with the game ending before Joe Hannah could march into the end zone for another Pioneer touchdown after a methodical drive downfield that left the ball within feet of the goal line. The team finished the regular season with a tired win over Tulare 14-0 to win the Tulare-Kern league championship
Merced won the Yosemite League that year, but had a record blemished by a tie with Fresno and a nonleague loss to Taft. The game was on a Saturday afternoon at 2:00 pm in Merced with a crowd of 5,000.
Starting lineups (click to enlarge)
Team rosters (click to enlarge)
Visalia scored before the first half ended and led 7-0. In the second half, the Pioneers held Merced scoreless after adding another 6 points to win 13-0 and take home the Valley Championship.
East Bakersfield was the only team to score more than 7 points against the Pioneers the entire season. In the aggregate, Pioneers defeated their opponents by a total of 219 to 66.
Click on “The Press” to see newspaper articles about the team and games played during the season.