By Lauren Keegan
The Pioneers are currently 1-1 in their 2018 football season after a loss to the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens with a score of 21-34 on Sept. 8, and a victory over the Whittier Poets on Sept. 15 with a score of 46-27. One of the most highly anticipated games of the season approaches on Saturday, Sept. 29 against Willamette University, where the Pios will be vying for a highly prized traveling trophy: the Wagon Wheel.
The Wagon Wheel game is played every season against the Willamette Bearcats, usually as the conference season opener. The winning team is awarded the privilege of taking home the prestigious Wagon Wheel for a year. The massive wooden wheel has been stationed in the lobby of Pamplin Sports Center with a proud orange Lewis & Clark hubcap wedged in its center since the Pios won back the wheel in the 2017 season with a 24-21 win over the Bearcats.
“I’m super excited about the game,” defensive back Tawayne Malone ’19 said. “This is the first time in a long time that we’re defending the Wagon Wheel rather than trying to get it, so it’s going to be pretty exciting going in there.”
This year, the exciting showdown will be hosted by Willamette in their hometown of Salem, Ore. The last time the Pios defended the Wheel was in 2001 after it was secured in 2000.
“Everyone’s talking about it,” defensive lineman David Ceja ’22 said. “It’s going to be an incredible atmosphere.”
Head coach Jay Locey offered a comprehensive view of the team’s approach to the game. “It’s the start of the Northwest Conference schedule,” Locey said. “The Wagon Wheel is a great one to start with. Both teams have picked up a win, so it’s going to be a competitive ball game. We’re excited and pursuing it with great intention, just like every game. Having a bye week is a good opportunity for us to get just a little bit back in shape, heal up a little bit and make some gains going into conference.”
According to the plaque mounted on the wheel itself, the tradition was started in 1948 by the Blue Key Men’s Honor Society. During this time, Head Coach Joe Huston was making great strides to boost the football program. Football rivalries were highly prized among larger schools in Oregon, such as the Civil War rivalry between Oregon State University and the University of Oregon. Their existence could have spurred a desire for the small colleges of Oregon to have a standoff of their own, especially as both teams’ skill and competition level increased.
Upon consulting the Pioneer Log archives, it is apparent that the LC football team was indeed gaining traction. In most editions of the Pioneer Log in this era, football articles took up nearly an entire page of a four-page spread. According to a column titled Sport Shorts by John Hoefling in the October 8, 1948 issue of the Pioneer Log, ‘The Bearcats have won the title for the past five years straight and have had a total of nine winners since the Northwest Conference was formed.” The Pioneers had been winning games as well, and appeared ready to challenge the Bearcats in the 1948 season. In an article titled LC Drops Willamette, the Bearcats lost to the Pioneers 14-13 in November of 1948, and rose to the top of the NWC standings.
Yet one thing remains unclear: why is the trophy a wagon wheel? Locey offers a helpful speculation.
“I’m assuming, but …. a bearcat, as I understand it, was the leader of the wagon train,” Locey said. “They had to get everybody going, had to get people moving, [they were] the leader of the wagon train that was coming up the Oregon trail. We’re the Pioneers, they’re the Bearcats, so I believe that’s why it’s a wagon wheel. But that’s a total assumption. It might be some other reason than that.”
Assistant coach and offensive coordinator Isaac Parker, a Willamette alumnus, had a bit more context for the Wheel’s history. “I do know that part of the reason why the Wagon Wheel is used with Willamette is because it is the oldest University west of the Mississippi, being the first college established by the original settlers in the Willamette Valley,” Parker said in an email. “Jason Lee, one of the first missionaries, was part of the first group of missionaries that came over to settle in Oregon, and he is the founder of Willamette University. So, I guess the connection of the Wagon Wheel with Lewis & Clark and Willamette is the historical tie between the historical figures Lewis and Clark and the settlement of the Salem area and the establishment of Willamette University.”
Whichever way the wheel turns, the annual showdown will be especially exciting this year and will mark a strong start to Pioneer Football’s conference season.