It’s Rivalry Week in Long Beach, with local teams having potential to write new chapters amid decades of history with cross-town foes.
Long Beach Poly will play Wilson, and Millikan takes on Lakewood. For breakdowns of Friday night’s matchups, visit the562.org for previews.
Here, we break down the history of these longtime grudge matches.
Long Beach Poly @ Wilson, 7 p.m.
The oldest rivalry in Long Beach is also one of the oldest continuous football rivalries anywhere in America. The Jackrabbits and Bruins will play for the 87th time on Friday, a rivalry dating back to 1932, more than 30 years before the Super Bowl began and just 10 years after the NFL’s oldest rivals (the Bears and Packers) met for the first time.
Poly’s football team has been around since 1908 and Wilson’s since 1926. The two teams, however, didn’t play against each other for six years.
According to legendary Wilson coach Skip Rowland, the reason the two teams didn’t meet until then is that school officials were afraid of potential unruliness. Turns out, they were right; the first game ended in a scoreless tie, sparking an on-field student riot, which lasted until a wise school official turned on the sprinklers and played “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Quickly the rivalry became known around Long Beach as “the Big Game,” even though it was often dominated by Poly. Wilson didn’t score its first touchdown against Poly until 1936, and didn’t win until 1943, when the famed Wilson “Jinx Busters” team beat Poly 37-7. The players and their fans marched up and down Second Street, in and out of Long Beach’s theaters, holding an all-night impromptu victory parade.
In the 1930s and 40s the game grew in size and reputation, frequently being held at the Rose Bowl before crowds of more than 30,000. Special trolley routes were set up to bring the Long Beach fans to and from the bigger stadium.
One phenomenal game between the two happened in 1950, when the Jackrabbits and Bruins met in the first game played at Veterans Memorial Stadium. Wilson was coached by Poly alum Jim Lineberger that year; Lineberger was one of the Poly and Wilson servicemen who wrote a letter from overseas during World War II, begging the city to build a football stadium in honor of the war dead from among Long Beach’s ranks. In the Vet’s first game, Lineberger’s Wilson squad beat his alma mater, 13-12.
The late ‘50s and early ‘60s were the golden period for Wilson, with the Bruins winning its only back-to-back Moore League titles in ’60 and ’61. Non-league champions rarely advanced to the CIF Southern Section playoffs, which often left second-place Wilson out of the fun.
“By today’s rules, I’m pretty sure we would have played (Wilson) for a championship,” said Mike Giers, an All-American lineman for Poly in that era.
Poly re-established its dominance in 1980 with a CIF-SS title won, and it’s been more or less all Jackrabbits since. The last time Wilson beat Poly on the field was 27 years ago—although a Poly forfeit in 2015 gave Wilson its first league title since that 1991 season.
Wilson hasn’t hosted the game since that 2015 contest due to construction of its new stadium, but will host the game this Friday.
The Bruins are expecting a sellout.
Lakewood @ Millikan, 7 p.m.
This year’s Hamilton Trophy rivalry game will be played at DeHaven Stadium at Millikan, but it almost may as well be at John Ford Stadium at Lakewood. The schools were built one year apart, in 1956 and 1957, and the Long Beach Unified School District saved money on an architect by using the same blueprint for both campuses.
In the 60-plus years they’ve been playing against each other, the teams’ rivalry has developed. The Lancers have won 36, the Rams have won 23, and they tied once.
The game awards a perpetual trophy, the Donice Hamilton Trophy, named after a teacher and administrator who worked at both schools until her tragic death in a car accident.
Millikan won the first Hamilton Trophy game, 33-13, but Lakewood has dominated this century, winning 15 in a row from 2002 until 2016. Last year the Rams broke the streak with a 34-31 slugfest win last year.
That game was interrupted a few times last year by a few scuffles, with personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on both teams. A fight broke out after the final whistle, and police officers separated the teams before the handshake line.
“That’s your Lakewood and Millikan rivalry right there,” Millikan first-year coach Justin Utupo said. He played at Lakewood and was All-CIF as a senior in 2009 before going to Notre Dame. “I’m excited for our boys,” he said. “It’s been 16 years. We’ll enjoy it and hope to build on this year in, and year out.”
If the Rams can win this year’s game, it will be their first win streak in the rivalry in this millennium. Casting the result into question are a slew of injuries to both teams that could force younger players to step into the spotlight in the two schools’ biggest showcase game.
“We’re excited about it,” said Utupo. “I know when I was at Lakewood and I know now that I’m at Millikan, nobody needs to give any big speeches for this one. Everyone knows what week it is.”
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