When you grow up in Southwest Ohio, a few regional sporting venues hold an almost mythical stature for you. Some stadiums, for whatever reason, are more than just the building and the people contained inside. Ohio Stadium, the Cincinnati Gardens, and University of Dayton Arena, just to name a few, have an aura attached to them that shine brighter than your average stadium. Both the history involved and the successes seen within their confines bring a sense to visitors of “we are about to witness something magical”.
When it comes to Cincinnati High School Football, perhaps, in my opinion, High School Football across the United States, there is no more legendary field of dreams than Walter J. Bartlett Field at Elder High School at a stadium simply known as The Pit.
Thanks to the Prep Sports Radio Network, I was able to discover a great deal about this legendary home to Friday Night Football. It is common knowledge that The Pit dates back to the 1930’s, but the history of the stadium is astounding. First, the iconic stadium was actually designed by a mechanical drawing teacher from Elder, Joe Neyer. Neyer would supervise as Elder Students…yes, you read that right…put their sweat and effort into building the structure. The Pit would be built in two stages, with the main structure being completed before World War II began, and the visiting stands following after the war was over. Over the years, while the players, coaches, and students have come and gone, The Pit looks almost identical to how it did over 60 years ago.
Unlike previous High School Fan Experiences, Elder High School is not in a suburb. There is no massive parking lot surrounding the school, nor is there a major highway in close proximity for quick and easy transport to and from the game. Elder High School is in a historic building on the west side of Cincinnati, tucked away within the neighborhood of Price Hill. If you are a West Sider, then you would be familiar with what route to take to get to Elder. As a child of the East Side of Cincinnati, I am not ashamed to admit I needed Google Maps for the entire drive through the dense streets of Price Hill.
I will be honest, Elder v. Moeller from The Pit was the only game I wanted to cover from Week 7 of the season. I had the game circled months ago when I first checked the schedule to set up my lineup of Fan Experiences. I knew going into the season that a trip to The Pit would be the ultimate Fan Experience for Southwest Ohio. I was expecting to be blown away by the environment, overcome with emotions as the game progressed, and in complete awe at the sight of a crowd in excess of 10,000 people.
I was not disappointed.
Please allow me to be blunt right off the bat. An hour before kickoff, before the concession stand had fully opened, the entire stadium was filled with the smell of grilled meats. The smell of cooked hot dogs, brats, metts, burgers, and goetta filled the October air with such fervor that one would have thought that they were standing just feet from a grill throughout the stadium. If I had not known any better, I would think every house surrounding The Pit was hosting a tailgate party before the game. To be fair, though, my statement was likely the reality.
The neighborhood feel surrounding Elder High School and The Pit lends itself perfectly to such a scenario. Backyards butt right up to the stadium, while some front yards were used as makeshift “pay to park lots” for those in search of secure parking off the street. Nearly every yard that I passed on my way to The Pit had at least one grill in use. Some of the backyard parties next to the stadium went on throughout the game, all the way until after the game was over.
As pictured above, even with homemade tailgate parties, there was still plenty of tailgate groups gathered throughout the school parking lots. Several large groups gathered, some with as many as 20 people, around cars and tables, preparing for the big game with food, friends, and fun. I almost felt out of place not tailgating while I stood by my car, let alone the fact that I was the only person there not wearing either Elder purple or Moeller blue.
The smells from the tailgating alone would have been enough to make that night the most memorable High School Fan Experience to date, but as you will see, the tailgating was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
I need to include alumni for the first time. Alumni are always present at high school football games, but they are quite possibly no more prevalent than at The Pit. I had never seen so many people wearing a school’s alumni shirt than I did that night, and I am including college homecoming games when I say that. I had always heard of “Elder Pride,” and such pride from alumni was apparent from the moment the stadium gates opened.
In addition to the typical parent volunteers within the stadium, several added locations needed help as well. With parking so hard to come by, seeing a parent wearing a neon yellow vest, signifying they were working as a parking attendant, was a common. Additionally, with the extra concession stands, which included a massive setup behind the south goalpost, it appeared that there were triple the usual concession workers than what has been the case at my previous Fan Experiences.
As far as fans go, the Elder faithful were as loud and proud as any fan base you will find. The passion never leaves an Elder Panther, it would seem. Not an empty space could be found within the stands at The Pit, and even as the game was getting out of hand in Elder’s favor, not one Elder fan left. Even as Moeller fans began to make their ways to the exit, the Panther fans were in no hurry to leave, soaking in every second of a huge victory over a Greater Catholic League (GCL) rival.
With such an overwhelming fan base on hand to support Elder, it was obvious why there was such a mystique over the environment at The Pit. You do not get the amount of support from alumni and parents that you get at Elder anywhere else in high school football. It is a spectacular accomplishment for the Panthers to be shown as much love as they are on their home field, and I don’t think I will see the amount of support I saw that night anywhere else I may go.
When you first get a glimpse of The Pit, the very sight is likely to send chills down your spine. A high school football stadium that can seat over 10,000 fans with roots that trace back about 80 years is a special sight to see indeed. On top of all of that, to witness a sea of purple throughout The Pit once the game kicked off was a thing of beauty.
The Pit is horseshoe shaped, with two noticeable openings in the structure. The obvious gap is the open end of the horseshoe on the north side of the stadium, directly in front of the high school itself. The other is in the southwest corner, which marks the break in construction that occurred during World War II, also provides an alternate fan entrance and automobile access from local streets.
Concessions were more accessible at The Pit than at any stadium I have encountered thus far. Stands are located behind the North Endzone, within the gap at the southwest end of the horseshoe, behind the south goal posts at field level. Along with the typical Hot Dogs, Soft Pretzels, and Nachos, you could find Goetta Dogs in the main concession stand, fresh shaved Snow Cones in the South Endzone, and a mobile Larosa’s pizza truck that sold Rondos for $1 each in addition to pizza slices.
What might be the most unique quirk to The Pit is how close the stands are to the field. If you were to walk in the main walkway in front of the first row of seats, you would find yourself standing maybe 25 feet from the sidelines. Even standing behind the last row of seats feels within an arm’s reach of the playing field. With such close proximity to the field, it was common for players being tackled out of bounds to end up sliding off the turf and onto the concrete walkway.
In stark contrast to the Centerville Jazz Band and the Anderson Marching Band, the Elder Marching Band was small in terms of physical size. However, when it comes to music, the number of performers is rarely important. Elder’s Band more than made up for their limited membership with a powerful and passionate sound.
Upon marching onto the field prior to kickoff, the band played the fight song as they formed a cursive E at midfield. What followed was a reverent performance of the alma mater, capped off by the national anthem. In ending their pregame festivities, the band marched into their position just behind the south endzone, ready to play at a moment’s notice throughout the game.
While there was no performance prior to kickoff from the Moeller Marching Band, they were present for the game. Admittedly, we did not get to hear much from the Moeller band due to the events of the game, but the sound they were able to generate with a similar number of performers was just as strong as the Elder band. The location of Moeller’s band was perfect for their fans, as their bleachers in the north endzone were no more than 15 yards from the Moeller student section.
What I always find interesting is the selection of music the band performs between plays or during timeouts and halftime since each band has a different sound that molds well to different genres of music. Most of what was played during timeouts and between plays was unfamiliar to me, which is not easy to find for a music geek such as myself. The halftime shows from both schools featured contemporary music, including Moeller beginning with Bruno Mars and Elder ending with Fitz and The Tantrums. Both bands made the modern music sound fantastic as a marching band, which is always a treat to hear.
Elder High School is an all-male catholic school. As such, there were no girls in the student section. The Elder cheerleaders were male, although oddly enough, Moeller, also an all-male catholic school, brought female cheerleaders. The Elder cheerleaders did not wear uniforms, although they really did not need them, since they led the students with a fiery ferocity that was fun to watch throughout the night.
The game was a “Blackout” game for the students. For the occasion, all students were encouraged to wear black, including special black shirts made to commemorate the game. Such special games are usually reserved for important games, usually signifying either a championship contender or a conference rival is coming to play the home team. That night, it was a conference rival, the Moeller Crusaders in this case, coming to play the hometown Elder Panthers.
The passion that these students showed was phenomenal. From the freshmen in the back row, all the way to the seniors in the front, each student was engaged for every play and every cheer. The Elder students were as close to 100% participation in their cheers as I am likely to see during my Fan Experiences, and I made sure their cheerleaders knew I felt that way before I left.
These were perhaps the most passionate and relentless students I have ever seen. The overpowering roars with accompanying raised hands as Elder’s defense fought to stop Moeller’s offense was the loudest I had heard from a student section all season. What was more astonishing were the taunts for Moeller the Elder boys were creating between plays. Everything from “Nice Pass” after a Moeller incompletion to “GCL Doormat” and even “Who’s Your Daddy” were heard coming from the Elder students at some point during the evening. While the aggressiveness of these chants may not have been necessarily family friendly, the passion of these students is without question.
It was a raucous group of students from start to finish. Actually, it would be more accurate to say they were raucous from before the start until after the finish. Before kickoff, the entire student section stormed onto the field just ahead of the team to take their position in the stands. The screaming and yelling started before the team even made it onto the field and the constant cheering never ceased. It truly was an honor to hear such a relentless group of students cheering their team to victory.
Elder and Moeller are traditional GCL rivals dating back to 1962, in a division which only contain two other schools, St. Xavier and LaSalle. All four schools are all-male catholic schools, and all four have a history of winning state championships in high school football. While all four have rich football histories, only Elder has a stadium with as much history as the team itself.
Both Elder and Moeller entered their game with 3-3 records, each holding onto slim hopes of making the playoffs and knowing a win would go a long way in securing a postseason appearance. With Elder coming off three straight losses to the top three teams in the state in the form of St. Xavier, St. Edwards, and St. Ignatius, the Panthers knew they had no margin for error against Moeller. At the same time, Moeller had lost in consecutive weeks to St. Xavier and LaSalle, eliminating them from contention for a GCL South championship.
Right from the start, the high stakes were evident. On Moeller’s opening drive of the game, they lost a fumble, which would lead directly to an Elder touchdown and a quick Panther lead. The first quarter was completely dominated by Elder, as Moeller could not get anything going on offense. Eventually, the Panthers would build a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter.
The Crusaders would finally mount an offensive attack in the second quarter, scoring two quick touchdowns in response to cut the lead to 21-14. Momentum had seemingly shifted entirely in the direction of Moeller after such a strong Elder performance in the first quarter. Moeller had found the answer against Elder’s defense and had finally stifled the Panther offense.
However, the momentum was short lived. With just a few seconds left in the first half, Elder quickly fought downfield for one final touchdown before halftime. The fourth touchdown of the half for the Panthers would turn out to be the death nail for the Crusaders.
Following halftime, it was all Elder. While the Panthers offense was not as dominant, the defense had their way with Moeller’s struggling offense. Moeller’s offense had completely fizzled after the half, and Elder never let the Crusader fire return. There was nothing going through the air or on the ground for the Crusaders as they struggled to get anything going in the second half.
Elder would score 14 points in the second half, but they could have scored more had they not eased off the gas towards the end. With the game in hand, Elder was able to play a few reserves who would not normally get the experience. The game would end with Elder picking up a well-deserved victory by the final score of 42-14.
Amazingly, the experience does not end when the game ends and you leave Elder. Another Cincinnati landmark, the original Larosa’s on Boudinot Avenue, is located just a few miles away from The Pit and is the home to the postgame radio show for Elder football. On the invitation of the Bangle brothers of the Prep Sports Radio Network, I made the short drive to Boudinot Avenue to check out the festivities.
What I saw was a group of dedicated fans gathering to continue the football celebration. The smell of pizza was in the air, as was the sense of pride in having just seen Elder take down a GCL rival. The massive restaurant had transformed into a postgame Elder tailgate extension.
Along with the pizzas, beers, and on air festivities, the Boudinot Larosa’s is also home to the Larosa’s High School Hall of Fame. You have heard of many of the names that have been inducted into the prestigious club. Names such as Barry Larkin, Jim Bunning, Jared Lorenzen, and Heather Mitts are among those you will find in the Larosa’s High School Hall of Fame, with pictures of them all on the walls of this historic restaurant.After receiving recognition for my work during the postgame show, I left Larosa’s feeling an overwhelming sense of joy for what I had just experienced. Watching an Elder football game at The Pit is an otherworldly experience. You will never experience a crowd like what I saw that Friday in Price Hill. The passion of the students, the alumni, the parents, and the band is unrivaled in Southwest Ohio, and when combined with the history of The Pit, makes for the experience of a lifetime. There really are no words to properly describe the feeling.
October 6, 2017 will be a day I will never forget. October 6, 2017 is the day I got to experience my first Elder game at The Pit as a neutral spectator. After all of the myths, legends, and rumors, I had finally seen firsthand what all of the mystique was about. As it turns out, all of the myths are true about football at The Pit.
The Pit at Elder High School is where the dreams of opponents fade to dust, and the memories of Panther legends live forever. In my case, the memory of that night will live on forever, and I could not be more excited to relive those memories. I only hope I get to feel that same intensity, excitement, and incomparable awe again someday.