Jayden Mink grew up on stories of the rivalry between Cambridge and Midvale.
His father graduated from Cambridge High. So did his grandmother. They both filled his head with tales of the glory days when the neighboring towns along the Weiser River could support their own sports teams.
“I remember hearing a lot of stories about how they absolutely hated each other,” the Cambridge junior said. “Stories about Midvale coming up and putting a big ‘M’ in the middle of our football field.”
But to Mink, that’s all they are — just stories.
Before he entered kindergarten, the Cambridge and Midvale school districts struck a deal. After decades of declining enrollment, the districts joined forces starting in the fall of 2005 to create a combined athletic program dubbed the Tri-Valley Titans.
The combined effort saved both towns’ athletic programs. And it has their 10-0 football team in the 1A Division II state football championship, where Tri-Valley faces perennial power Carey (11-0) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Middleton High.
‘PLAY TOGETHER, OR DON’T PLAY AT ALL’
The sign entering Cambridge declares “Welcome to Titan Country,” and fans have festooned blue and orange ribbons on every telephone pole, lamp post and stop sign leading up to the shared football stadium.
But the community support for the Tri-Valley experiment wasn’t always so obvious.
Separated by 8 miles of U.S. 95, students regularly shuffled between the two schools. Cambridge residents attended school in Midvale, and Midvale natives went to Cambridge High.
The two shared football players for years to keep a combined 8-man program alive. But even with a blurry boundary, no conflict is more heated than one with a sibling.
“That was our big rival,” said Tri-Valley coach Bob Johnson, who taught and coached at Cambridge from 1972 to ’78 before returning in 2012. “There has always been talk about consolidating the two districts. But it was always voted down because Cambridge wanted their own school and Midvale wanted their own school.”
The schools floated the idea of merging all their sports programs as early as the ’90s. Alumni from both towns resisted fiercely. But waning populations forced their hands.
Johnson said Cambridge hosted 120 high school students in the ’70s. But after a lumber mill shut down in the ’70s and as ranch work requires fewer and fewer hands, Cambridge held 42 high school students last school year, according to the Idaho High School Activities Association. Midvale isn’t any better off at 34.
“The reality is we play together, or we don’t play at all,” Cambridge Athletic Director Sara Kindall said.
LIKE A MARRIAGE
The neighboring school districts finally muscled the political capital to merge the two sports programs starting in the 2005-06 school year, and administrators from both schools designed a series of compromises to satisfy both towns.
▪ The Titans would wear blue and orange. Blue for the Midvale Rangers, and orange for the Cambridge Bulldogs.
▪ Cambridge would host every football game and practice while the Titans volleyball team would play and practice in Midvale.
▪ The boys and girls basketball teams would play in Cambridge when their opponent traveled from the north and Midvale when the opponent hailed from the south.
▪ Any trophy Tri-Valley won would be duplicated so each school could display it.
▪ A co-op board made up of both districts’ school boards meets twice a year to set budgets and hire coaches.
“It’s like being in a relationship or a marriage,” Midvale principal KyLee Morris said. “It takes compromising and understanding on both sides.”
Students from Cambridge and Midvale voted on their new name and mascot, choosing it over the Cuddy Mountain Cougars for the landmark peak north of Cambridge. Tri-Valley represents the Cambridge, Midvale and Indian valleys. Indian Valley residents already attended school in Cambridge.
Angie Lakey-Campbell said the hostility has waned in recent years. But the principal of Cambridge during the merger added it’s never fully disappeared.
“Even now, when you talk to alumni from either school, it was the absolute worst thing that could ever be done,” said Lakey-Campbell, now the superintendent of Oregon’s Imbler School District. “I tried to explain to people, ‘No, it’s not.’ They’re playing for a state championship. If those two wouldn’t have been combined, they wouldn’t be.”
SOLUTION TO A COMMON PROBLEM
Midvale and Cambridge aren’t the only rural towns in Idaho shrinking. Whether it’s a shuttered lumber mill, a tapped-out mining claim or the automation of farm labor, small towns throughout Idaho and the West struggle to retain young families.
Of the 52 Idaho high schools that play 8-man football or combine with another school for a team, 38 had a lower enrollment last school year than they did eight years ago, according to IHSAA records. And 21 of those schools shrank by 20 percent or more.
That’s led to a yo-yoing of schools in and out of 8-man football and widespread adoption of co-ops.
When you’re a high school kid and you have no hindsight, the world only exists in their age bubble. They might get older and think back, but they have no perspective. To them, it’s only ever been Titans.
KyLee Morris, Midvale principal and 2000 graduate
Council dropped to a JV football schedule this fall due to low numbers. Greenleaf joined forces with rival Wilder this summer. And Clark County and Watersprings scrambled to join forces days before the season started when they couldn’t support their own teams.
But those co-ops are often short-lived. Murtaugh and Hansen split this fall after three years. Richfield and Camas County separated after one year. Rimrock and Greenleaf did the same.
Tri-Valley remains the only program in the state to permanently merge two schools for every sport. Kindall understands the desire to preserve a town’s identity and traditions for another generation, but she said there’s another way forward.
“I would say embrace the change,” she said. “You’ll be amazed at what can come of it. The schools have grown together. The communities have grown together. And the kids have grown up with what was a rival is now a friend.”
TIME, WINNING CEMENT STATUS
The old Midvale and Cambridge alumni remain devoted to their identities. But as the children of the last Rangers and Bulldogs make their way through school as Titans, the animosities are slipping.
Kindall, a 1999 Cambridge grad, said it hit her in the face when her children started playing sports. Collin Kindall is a senior fullback and defensive end for Tri-Valley, and Nathan Kindall is a freshman offensive and defensive lineman.
Ask them, and they’ll only identify themselves as Titans. The last time they saw someone from Midvale as an opponent came in a backyard pickup game.
“Once you saw the generational change, and the kids came through and started playing sports, the parents were OK with it,” Kindall said. “The kids don’t know Cambridge and Midvale. They just know the Titans.”
I absolutely love it. Some of my best friends are from Midvale. We’ve grown up knowing each other since we were little.
Jayden Mink, Cambridge junior and Tri-Valley quarterback
Time heals all wounds. But so does winning.
Tri-Valley has rolled through the season undefeated, blowing out opponents by an average score of 53.2 to 12.2 with a brand of physical football rare to 8-man. Instead of running past teams with a series of small, quick players, Tri-Valley features a roster with nine players listed over 190 pounds.
“Teams think we’re just going to have that speed,” senior running back Teddy Ertel said. “But we’re physical, too, and that brings another aspect to the table. Other teams don’t have that, and we do.”
Cambridge finished first in the state’s final AP poll in 1975 and 1981, before the creation of the IHSAA playoffs. It last reached the state championship game in 1997, so this year’s run has unleashed 20 years of pent-up anticipation.
Twenty years ago, a Ranger blue ribbon tied around the Cambridge City Hall sign would have called for retaliation. Now, it’s a show of unity.
Even Grandma Peggy Mink, a staunch Bulldogs supporter, has come around, Jayden Mink said.
“It’s brought all the Midvale parents and all the Cambridge parents together, and they’re all behind us,” Jayden Mink said. “Everyone is supporting us and there’s no divide anymore. We might be 8 miles apart, but it seems like we’re one big town now.”