Sports

Rivalry rekindled: East High vs. West High

The East High Knights won back-to-back state basketball titles under coach Les Eathorne in 1973 and 1974. - Photo courtesy of easthighknights.com
The East High Knights won back-to-back state basketball titles under coach Les Eathorne in 1973 and 1974.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of easthighknights.com

Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a five-part series examining the history of the East High-West High rivalry in Bremerton between 1956 and 1978. The series is a lead-up to an East-West alumni fundraising basketball game scheduled for Dec. 28. The alumni game, the first of its kind, is being put on by the Bremerton Student & Alumni Association. Each installment will appear the second week of each month and explore the East-West rivalry while intertwining BSAA's role in student life at Bremerton High School.

Today: an overview of both the rivalry and BSAA.

Where the olive-green steel trusses came to an apex, East met West.

Barking students – freshmen — crossed the Manette Bridge, their chants ricocheting off metal toward the cool, whirl-pooling water below. They marched, in unison, toward the land of the Wildcats.

It was hours before the East High Knights were to face the West High Wildcats in freshman football, perhaps the most heated inner-city rivalry this town has ever seen.

It was game day in Bremerton. And it was East vs. West.

“When they had an opportunity to go at each other, it was just huge,” said John Sitton, a 1968 West High alum, Bremerton native and longtime coach and classroom instructor. “For this community, it was everything.”

Bremerton was a two-high school town between 1956 and 1978; East High bustled on the Manette side and West High, constructed in 1927 and originally called Bremerton High School, flourished on the other side of town, across the Port Washington Narrows.

Those who attended East or West say the rivalry was — and still is — unparalleled in terms of intensity, tradition, passion and the camaraderie it generated inside the schools’ halls and across Bremerton.

From state-caliber football and basketball teams to 250-member marching bands to spirited cheer squads and drill teams, the East-West rivalry pushed both schools to greatness. What the Wildcats did, so, too did the Knights — and vice versa.

“In every aspect, there was a huge competition between these two schools,” said Sitton, who was an assistant basketball coach at West High before the schools merged in 1978. “They were huge schools, huge populations of students. There was excellence in both high schools ... it just fueled the competition because they were some of the best in the state of Washington.”

Both schools had junior highs, or “feeder” schools. Dewey Junior High fed East while Coontz Junior High fed West.

The student enrollment, coupled with the success both schools found through athletics, academics, music, theatre, band and drill, fueled the rivalry. During the annual Armed Forces Day Parade, the schools’ bands — the Knights in black and white, the Wildcats in blue and gold — marched against one another down Pacific Avenue, drawing thousands of spectators. 

“It was an amazing scenario,” Sitton said, adding that crowds of 5,000 also were commonplace at football games. “The healthy competition spurred greatness out of both schools.”

For 23 years, the rivalry grew and grew and grew. The population, however, plateaued and began to decline, resulting in a school merger to save costs. West was combined to the East site, the newer of the two schools. The merged school assumed the Knights mascot, bringing Wildcat athletes, band members, teachers and others under their rivals roof.

The new climate, Sitton remembers, was volatile.

“It wasn’t an easy thing to go through in terms of working with all these people to put the two schools together,” Sitton said. “These were separate identities of the city of Bremerton. To melt them together, at first, it was almost seemingly impossible to do that.”

After the old West High building was lost to fire, a new building was constructed on-site, along 13th Street, in 1989. The student body was once again moved, this time to the west side, where the current Bremerton High School stands.

Since the merger and relocation, some alumni have moved away while others have stayed. For many, the rivalry still exists and the memories are powerful.

For that — as part of a broad student- and alumni-outreach effort — the Bremerton Student & Alumni Association is rekindling the rivalry with an East-West alumni fundraising game, scheduled for Dec. 28.

BSAA Executive Director Jim Portune, who is spearheading the event, came up with the idea after a conversation with a faculty member at Olympic College who asked why there had never been such an event.

Portune said the purpose of the alumni game is threefold: to provide an avenue for East and West alumni to be actively involved with the current high school; to enhance awareness of school history with current teachers, alumni, students and parents; and to raise money for the BSAA select basketball programs, 2009-10 BHS cheer squad and the BHS athletic training program.

The game will be played at the Bremerton High School gym, which Portune said will be divided into two sections — East and West. Both sides are set to have cheerleading squads, bands and the drill teams will perform at halftime.

In addition, Les Eathorne, who guided East High to consecutive state basketball titles in 1973 and 1974, will coach East.

“This event is about more than basketball,” Portune said. “It’s about all of East and West coming together to showcase who they were.”

Part 2 of this series, appearing Aug. 14, will explore the mission of BSAA, providing additional details on the alumni game as well as the opportunities available for those interested in joining BSAA.

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