LATHROP — The “Battle of I-5” actually began in a small town off of Highway 99 in the late 80s.
Meet Pat King and Bill Slikker, two lifelong friends who were schoolmates at Ripon High and roommates at Dickinson State in North Dakota.
They got into teaching at the same time and are employed by the Manteca Unified School District. They are godparents to each other’s children. Now, they are coaches and athletic directors for rival schools situated to the west of Interstate-5 and separated by 7.5 miles and two exits.
“Bill and I grew up together, so we have a rivalry of our own,” said King, a 1990 graduate of Ripon and Weston Ranch’s A.D. Slikker is a 1989 alumnus who oversees Lathrop High athletics. “We always tease each other on certain things, so this just adds to the rivalry.”
Leave it up to Seth Davis to further wedge them apart. Weston Ranch’s first-year head coach is credited for making the Cougars’ football rivalry with Lathrop more official, coming up with the “Battle of I-5” moniker and even building its perpetual trophy — a gold and silver helmet mounted on a wooden stand.
While Friday night marks the fifth meeting between Lathrop and Weston Ranch on the gridiron, this one, along with all others after, Davis hopes, is different. (For the record, Weston Ranch won all four of its previous games against Lathrop).
The first-ever Battle of I-5 showdown kicks off at around 7:15 at Bennie Gatto Field. It was here that Davis unveiled the trophy on Wednesday. The outcome of each Lathrop-Weston Ranch contest from now on will be engraved on the helmet.
Davis knows a little something about tradition. The 2006 Manteca High graduate was the leading tackler on the school’s 2005 Sac-Joaquin Section championship squad. Both Lathrop and Weston Ranch, in fact, have assistant coaches who were part of Manteca’s section title runs in 2001, 2005 and 2006.
“Our school (Weston Ranch) is only 10 years old and Lathrop is only about 4 or 5 years old,” Davis said. “(Tradition) is the one thing that Weston Ranch and Lathrop haven’t had because the consistency hasn’t been there. We’re starting something small, we’ll tend to it and continue to build it up hopefully for a long time.
“We’re obviously not going to get to the level of Oakdale-Sonora because they’ve been playing for 100 years, but hopefully me and (Lathrop) coach (Steven) Wichman can give something to these kids that make them want to come back to this game and say, ‘I remember playing in that Battle of I-5.’ We’d like to create something for these kids to take with them forever.”
Wichman is also a first-year head coach. The Tracy native who prepped at West High (class of 2002) remembers feeling the electricity as the Wolf Pack’s quarterback playing against rival Tracy High in the Crosstown Classic.
Wichman is a special education teacher at Lathrop, while Davis is a campus monitor at Weston Ranch, so they very much feel like they are part of their players’ lives.
Davis first pitched the Battle of I-5 idea to Wichman before presenting it to the athletic directors.
Interesting tidbit: Wichman’s uncle, John Morris, was the first-ever head coach at Weston Ranch.
“I thought it was a fantastic idea, especially because of the proximity and the location between the two schools,” Wichman said. “Quite a bit of my players are familiar with quite a bit of their players, so it just made a lot of sense to make this a rivalry. This is something neat that we can build on in the future.”
With the section’s new realignment cycle taking place next year, the two A.D.s are looking into making this a Week-10 affair. Typically, the final regular-season finale is reserved for traditional rivals to square off. In the Valley Oak League there of course is Oakdale-Sonora and East Union-Manteca. Currently, Weston Ranch takes on Sierra on Week 10, while Lathrop is paired with Tracy’s Kimball.
“If both of us are out of the playoffs, we’d have something to play for in Week 10,” Davis said. “But there is a playoff spot on a league championship on the line, there would be that much more on top of it.”
Slikker did his part in sparking this new rivalry, scheduling Lathrop’s homecoming the week of the inaugural Battle of I-5.
“I had a meeting this week with the band, the Spartan Nation (cheering section), our announcer and the cheerleaders,” Slikker said. “We have always been here on Friday nights, but this was the first time we’ve coordinated an event together. Hopefully this catapults the Battle of I-5. Obviously, with this being the first year we don’t want to see the trophy go to Weston Ranch.”
Any side bets between he and King?
“If the loser has to shave his head he won’t mind because he doesn’t have any hair,” King quipped.
Let the battle begin.