I drove to Centerville High School on September 8 thinking I was going to be a part of the most enthralling fan experience I would see before I take my cruise at the end of the month. I drove up Route 48 from Lebanon thinking, this should be a fun night, with a large crowd and a highly competitive game between two of the better Division 1 schools in the state of Ohio.
What I saw that night may have been the most exhilarating fan experience I have ever been a part of, and may ever see in my lifetime.
Where do I even begin? From the mass of tailgaters well entrenched in the parking lot two hours before kickoff, to the highly talented marching band, and ending with the most enthusiastic student section I’ve ever seen, that night had it all rolled up into one game.
The Centerville Elks were hosting the Pickerington North Panthers, a team from just outside Columbus who had made a run in the playoffs in 2016. Both Centerville and Pickerington North were 2-0 going into the game, with both squads holding aspirations of making it to the state playoffs in 2017.
Today will be a rare post where I talk about the game last, because above everything else, that may have been the best part of the entire night.
Like Miamisburg, I was hoping to find that one person with a table and crock-pots set up before anyone else, eagerly anticipating the Friday ritual of cheering on their high school football team.
Imagine, then, my surprise when the first sight I see upon entering the parking lot is tent after tent of people occupying giant blocks of parking spots. Fans were doing everything from cooking up a storm, blaring music, playing cornhole, to overall having just a grand old time. Two hours before kickoff, I counted 13 groups of tailgaters, from old timers to young adults, with kids of all ages tossing footballs and beanbags throughout the massive parking lot. Centerville flags were everywhere, marking the first, and so far only, time in my life that I have been happy to see so much black and gold surrounding me.
What struck me the most was the huge group of Centerville High School students gathered in a corner of the parking lot. All seemed to be wearing red, white, and blue, some even wearing American flags painted across their chests. The cornhole set they had, along with the food and music set up in the back of a nearby pickup truck appeared to mark the largest group of tailgaters for the game. I would come to realize that the enthusiasm of these students would not be confined to the parking lot, but we will get to that part in a second.
When one arrives for a football game and you are greeted by the smell of a charcoal grill and various dips, you know you are in for a good night of football. At Centerville, before you even enter the stadium, you receive a bear hug of delicious smells and eager fans ready for football.
Centerville Stadium, or “The Black Hole” as it is affectionately referred to by the PA Announcer, tricked me into believing I was not at a High School Football game. The massive concrete bleachers on the home sideline show their age, but have held up well over the years, easily packing the largest crowd for a High School Football game I have seen in 14 years. The the smaller metal bleachers on the visiting team’s sidelines seemed distant from the home grandstand, but that did not diminish how the Pickerington North fans filled them, with a good crowd making the trip from Columbus.
Underneath the massive seating area is the main concourse. There you will find all the amenities the stadium has to offer, including restrooms, concessions, and a spirit wear stand. Concessions include Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, which was the first fried chicken I tried when I was a kid. An added bonus was that the Lee’s Chicken and available pizza was half price from the start of the fourth quarter until they sold out.
The main take away from Centerville Stadium is, although I could tell it was older than many High School Football stadiums, you never feel as though you are in an old facility. The artificial turf was well groomed, and the structure itself has obviously been well kept over the years. Despite a considerable distance from the seats to the field, due to the running track sitting between the stands and the playing surface, it was hard to find a bad seat anywhere in Centerville Stadium.
A good stadium cannot stand on its own if the people are not good themselves. From the parents at the gate, to the volunteers in the concession stand, it was obvious from the start that the atmosphere was going to be welcoming for an outsider like me.
The common theme that I have seen in my first three weeks of this grand experiment, parents at high school football games are usually overjoyed to be there in whatever capacity they can be. Whether it is a parent wanting to help at their daughter’s school, or a single parent cheering on their only son, every parent has given the appearance that they want to be there for the team rather than that have to be. What a beautiful sight that is indeed.
Fans in the stands were raucous to say the least, but with such an exciting game on the field, I cannot say I was surprised to see such a strong show of support. While I could hear a few cowbells in the stands, most fans stuck to traditional cheers, cheering along with the cheerleaders and making as much noise as they possibly could to support their defense. For Elks fans, it was strength in numbers, as the roar I heard from this crowd was among the loudest I believe I will hear all season.
An interesting facet that I have not seen before, Centerville Alumni were allowed on the field near the home sidelines. A section was roped off just short of the playing field, from about the 25-yard line down to the end zone, where Alumni could gather and watch their team up close. Several alumni appeared to be no more than a year or two removed from high school, and were clearly friends with some members of the team. This was the first instance I have seen of a school dedicating a section just for alumni, and it was something I feel would go well at any high school football stadium.
After going a week where there was no marching band due to the inclement weather, I was looking forward to seeing Centerville’s band on the field. I had heard good things about the band, but these words did no justice to just how good the Centerville Jazz Band was.
The Centerville Jazz Band, as they are known, did not have many opportunities to play during first half, as the game did not begin to pick up intensity until the second half. They more than made up for it from halftime moving forward.
The halftime show included a fascinating display of marching around the field to a saxophone and lone trumpeter, before the whole band joined in with a phenomenal sound. The show was very good, and worthy of keeping you in your seat during halftime, which likely led to an unfortunate lack of halftime concession sales I assume.
As the game began to get interesting, and more timeouts were being taken, the band would strike up a tune between breaks as a way to work the crowd into frenzy. The music did the job perfectly, as every timeout ended with the students screaming louder than before. While the variety of music during the breaks was not as diverse as I was hoping for, the music was just what the students needed, and it fit the excitement level perfectly.
One omission from my experience with the band that night, I was told, was that during the fourth quarter, when Centerville is ahead, the drumline march in front of the students and play directly to the Elks’ student section. We did not get to see this, as the game would not allow a Centerville lead for most of the fourth quarter. My though, what a sight that would have been given all the passion I had already seen that night, to see that student section going bananas for with the drumline.
That leaves just the students to discuss. Let me give you my initial reaction to their cheering.
Oh my God.
I challenged the Centerville student section, better known as The Herd, to be as crazy as they possibly could be. What I saw was a crazed, energetic, diehard, enthusiastic group of students who knew no limits to how loud and how strong they could cheer for their Elks. The Herd took my challenge, accepted, and went beyond any possible expectation I could have set for them.
For one, the patriotic theme for the game was readily apparent, with a couple American flags flying and every student wearing Centerville Elks shirts bearing the colors red, white, and blue. The lone Centerville flag in the group flew between the American flags for most of the night. The same students I saw with American flags painted on their chests instead of wearing shirts during tailgating were student leaders who could be seen running track with the cheerleaders, They may have been the loudest students of them all that night.
As the game came down to the wire, I stood at field level directly in front of the student section holding my voice recorder. I tried to narrate the game as it went on in the final seconds, somehow able to get my voice to record over the ear splitting volume of the students behind me. At one point, as I listened to the recordings again, I thought the cheers from the students may have broken the microphone in my recorder, which would not have bothered me one bit.
To properly continue with how amazing these students were, I must get into just how the game finished.
With three minutes left, Pickerington North scored what appeared to be the dagger in the Centerville Elks. A touchdown that late against Centerville meant the Pickerington North now held a 26-17 lead, and although the Elks still had all three timeouts, the air seemed to have been let out of a previously electric Centerville Stadium.
Hope resurfaced quickly, though, as Centerville drove down the field in a minute, responding with a touchdown of their own, making the score 26-24, with the Elks still holding on to all three of their timeouts. Conventional wisdom, I thought at the time, said kick off to Pickerington North and hope that your defense can give the offense a chance to score at the end to win it. As it would stand, conventional wisdom was thrown out the window at that moment.
Centerville proceeded to attempt an onside kick, which is difficult for the kicking team to recover at any level of football. The Elks were up to the challenge, as they recovered the kick and had two minutes to try to win the game.
At this point, I had made my way back to the press box in anticipation of a Pickerington North victory, hoping to get a couple pictures from high atop Centerville Stadium. When Centerville recovered the kick, I had to run down the 32 or so rows of bleachers, down to the north end of the stadium, hop a security rope, and make my way to the running track to position myself in front of the now overjoyed students of Centerville High School. I made it down for the final minute and a half, and I was not disappointed.
As the clock began to run down towards a minute, the Elks looked to be on the verge of defeat, with the offense forced into long third down situations twice on their final drive. Both times they converted, with the final first down drawing Centerville down to the five yard-line before stepping out of bounds to stop the clock. From there, a Quarterback sneak centered the ball in front of the goalposts for an easier field goal attempt.
The final Centerville timeout, with just 2.5 seconds left, followed by a Pickerington North timeout, led to a highly anticipated final play of the game. The Herd was silent as the kicker lined up for the potential game winning, 23-yard field goal. To put this in perspective, The Herd was so quiet that I could hear the kicker kick the ball on my recorder from about 30 yards away.
The kick was good, and Centerville emerged victorious, 27-26.
What followed was mayhem the likes of which I had never seen at the high school level. The Centerville team stormed the field as the referees signaled that the field goal was good. The Herd leapt from the stands down to the running track below. Only a security rope along the field preventing the students from stampeding onto the field. The Centerville Jazz Band began to play their fight song, and proceeded to repeat the song again once they had finished playing it once.
As the players ran towards the band, the students were released from behind the rope, nearly trampling me in the process as I found my way towards the scoreboard to marvel at the game’s result. With the students and players all gathered around the band, the Centerville Alma Mater began to play softly, before turning into a tremendous rendition of the fight song. To end the celebration, the students, some on the shoulders of players, began to chant and yell and jump up and down in honor of their dramatic victory.
My trip to Centerville High School was something that words cannot properly describe. I was overwhelmed at times with the fervor of excitement I had felt throughout the stadium, especially towards the end when the Elks appeared to be destined for a comeback victory. The usual pomp and circumstance was enhanced by the size of the crowd, both before and during the game. I was completely blown away by just about every part of the Centerville fan experience.
I do mean this when I say that the Elks may have set the bar so high for this Fan Experience series that the rest of the schedule may be unable to top it. That is saying something, considering the plan is to at some point make it to both Elder and Wayne this season. Centerville may have just taken the cake, and it was only Week 3.
A special message to The Herd: You guys had the enthusiasm of a college student section. I mean that. I have been in the middle of Big 10 student sections, and you guys rank right up there with the best I have ever seen. You should be proud of what you are able to do as a cheering section. I hope we cross paths again, because your enthusiasm was off the charts on Friday, and I would love to be a part of that amount of excitement again someday!