The Victory Bell Game has been synonymous with football in Tulare since its inception 48 years ago.
Tulare Union and Tulare Western have waged war on the gridiron in the hope that at the end of the night they can declare themselves "City Champions."
But four years ago, that all changed when a third high school began athletic play in Tulare.
The Mission Oak Hawks were the new kids on the block and they looked to alter the football landscape in what had long been a two-team town.
It didn't take that much time for Mission Oak to put its stamp on football in Tulare. After falling to its rival city schools in its first full year in the East Yosemite League, the Hawks swept past Tulare Union and Tulare Western in 2011.
In essence, Mission Oak was the city champion with no hardware to show for it.
Also, with the victories over their now two chief rivals, the Hawks began to lay the foundation for a successful program in a city whose high school-aged athletes are now
dispersed to three schools.
A city championship trophy?
For nearly three decades, the city of Visalia has awarded the Sid Hosking Trophy to the football team that had the best record against the other schools in town. They would be declared city champions.
The city began the award five years after Golden West was opened. Mission Oak will conclude its fifth year of football in 2013.
Redwood was the initial champion in 1984 and the Rangers have the most overall titles with 15. Mt. Whitney and El Diamante each have five trophies and Golden West has three.
As time has gone on, the city championship trophy has seemed to gain prestige with the four Visalia high schools, El Diamante head coach Mark Rogers said.
"I think the city championship has grown," Rogers said. "The Cowhide Game is still bigger, and if you ask anyone, either at Redwood or Mt. Whitney, which ... they'd rather win, it would be the Cowhide. But I think winning the Saddle and the city championship, that's huge now."
A trophy like the Sid Hosking could also be big in Tulare if it were ever to materialize, Mission Oak athletic director Roger Hildreth said. But presently, he said, no coaches, athletic directors, alumni, fans, or school and city leaders have broached the subject.
"It really hasn't come up yet," Hildreth said. "I think us being the new school and looking at a city championship, that would be kind of neat -- maybe a memorial to someone in Tulare. I'm not opposed to having a city championship."
Neither are the athletic directors at Tulare Union (Diana Nalbandian-Hatton) and Tulare Western (Dereck Domingues). Both said that no one has really been clamoring for there to be a city championship trophy or have a rivalry-type trophy game against Mission Oak, but like Hildreth, they said it's not something they'd be against.
"Our kids get excited when we play Mission Oak or anyone else in town," Nalbandian-Hatton said. "It's been discussed before, but we're moving forward with just the Bell Game. That's been the huge rivalry.
"I'm not against a city championship down the road, but the teams already know who the city champion is -- like with Mission Oak last year."
Domingues echoed Nalbandian-Hatton's sentiments when it came to there just being one trophy game in Tulare for now.
"The Victory Bell Game is special -- it's Western versus Union," Domingues said. "When they added Golden West, they didn't include them in the Cowhide. Eventually, if we do build a fourth school, Mission Oak will have its rivalry game. The Victory Bell Game will always be Western-Union."
Impacting football in Tulare
The Hawks have experienced success on the field the last couple of years -- they were in the Central Section Division IV semifinals in 2011 and this year they are in line to capture their first league title -- but they've also in a way impacted the football programs at Tulare Union and Tulare Western.
Before Mission Oak came into existence, Tulare Western had nearly 2,600 students. Once Mission Oak was built, the boundary lines for the three schools had to be redrawn and Tulare Western dropped nearly 1,000 students, according to the latest California Basic Educational Data System information on the CIF Central Section website. Mission Oak currently stands at nearly 1,400 students and Tulare Union has more than 1,800.
"Western took the brunt of that," Nalbandian-Hatton said. "The shift of students brought them down to a lower number. It's going to take time for them to adjust."
The first year with Mission Oak around wasn't great for the Mustangs, as they went 3-7 in 2009. But the following year, Tulare Western improved to 6-5 and went to the playoffs. In 2011, the Mustangs dropped back down to 3-7 and this year saw the team go without a victory after they lost its regular-season finale 54-21 to Tulare Union.
"We continue to remain positive," Domingues said. "With the new coaching staff comes change, and that takes time. It doesn't show by the scores, but I've seen progress. There are good things happening.
"We've been around since 1959 and we've had some very good years. It's tough but at the very same time, I'm happy for Mission Oak and their success. I'd love for all three schools in Tulare to be successful."
Success has been a given ever since Darren Bennett took over the Tulare Union program nearly 18 years ago. His teams have won numerous league titles and multiple Valley championships. Bennett's players have broken Central Section records and moved on to the two-year and four-year college level.
But can it be sustained? Nalbandian-Hatton hopes it can, but like with Tulare Western this year and even El Diamante in 2011 (the Miners went 1-9), there comes a time where a school will have a less-than-stellar season.
Pundits might say this is Tulare Union's down season, as they finished 5-5 in the regular season after their win in the Bell Game. But the Redskins did win a share of the EYL title and they reached the Division I playoffs.
"All together, we've had the coaching and we've had the athletes," Nalbandian-Hatton said. "But this goes in cycles. There are ups and downs. When I was in high school, Tulare Union wasn't doing so well. With the addition of the new school, it leveled it out across the board."
That last statement would be up for debate, especially for those who live on the west side of the city. But Domingues said whether it's having students go to the new school (Mission Oak) or even the oldest school (Tulare Union), there's no complaining, as what's done is done.
"It's cyclical," Domingues said. "We're not going to be 0-10 next year or the year after that. We'll be a successful program. With change, it takes time. Right now, the kids believe, and they're a close-knit group of young men. ..."
"I ask that people be patient with us and the program. I don't like losing any more than anyone else, but I see the direction we're going. We've got good athletes at our school and a very good coaching staff. We're getting better."
On Friday evening, Domingues said that Tulare Western coach Stevan Chamalbide was told Friday afternoon that he would no longer be the football coach.
Reality sets in
As it currently stands, there is no city championship for football in Tulare, and from all accounts, it doesn't appear there will be one anytime soon.
That's fine with Mission Oak head coach Mark Gambini.
"I think right now it is what it is," Gambini said. "The Bell Game has rich history. There are no plans to name a game with Union or Western. We'll go with it as is. Even if it's not called anything, there's still going to be excitement about the game just because it's in the same city -- it gives it more meaning.
"Our talk this week has been about winning a league championship and hanging a banner in our gym. You play the game because you love it, not just to win patches and things like that. It's for the enjoyment of being out there on Friday night."
But if there were to be a city champion crowned and a trophy was to come with it, Gambini said he wouldn't be opposed to that happening either.
"Yeah, if we get some hardware, it might be a cool way to reward a city champion," Gambini said.
As for what's happening at Tulare Western in 2012, Gambini has been a coach for a long time and he can empathize with Chamalbide and the season the Mustangs encountered.
"Talent level is cyclical," Gambini said. "You instill a program based on what you stand for. There will be some down cycles. Redwood dipped a bit with the addition of new schools. It's the nature of the beast. The talent pool of athletes gets spliced up and sent to other schools.
"You just have to work through it. There are years when the talent is down and there are injuries -- so it can get away from you and you have a bad year. You just have to stay the course, work hard, build the young men up and get them back on track."